“It was pretty frightening,” she remembers. “I was completely put under [anesthesia]. Everyone saw the baby before I did.”
Despite a challenging birth, Velasquez and her son went on to breastfeed for 13 months. During this time, she planned the birth of her second child with 18 month spacing, hoping to replicate the sibling-closeness that she enjoyed with her sister.
Having moved from Florida to New York (then later back to Florida), Velasquez had a successful vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC) at 40 weeks and 2 days with her second son.
“It was the most amazing experience ever,” Velasquez reports. “I told my husband, ‘I could do this a million more times.’”
Shy of a million, Velasquez did go on to carry four more babies as a gestational surrogate (GS): a baby born in May 2015, twins born in January 2017 and a baby born in July 2020. Velasquez pumped after her first surrogacy birth for eight months, the second for 15 months, and has currently been pumping and for six months and counting.
Velasquez says surrogacy was something that she always wanted to do. Initially, she and her sister planned to become surrogates together after they had completed their own families, but when her sister ended up becoming pregnant again with her own child, Velasquez started her surrogacy journey solo in 2014.
About 750 babies were born via gestational surrogacy in the U.S. in 2019. [https://www.webmd.com/infertility-and-reproduction/guide/using-surrogate-mother#1]
Thinking back to her pregnancy with the twins, Velasquez reports that she and the parents have become like family. In fact, she says that while her surrogacy journey is over, she would make an exception for this couple if they chose to grow their family.
“They are raising their twins knowing of me and how I carried them in my belly. It’s the sweetest thing!” she exclaims.
Like the birth of her second son, Velasquez describes her first surrogacy birth as an amazing experience too.
“I became friends with the parents,” she explains. “It was really great.”
The intended parents (IPs) did not make the birth of their baby, but they listened in on Velasquez’s labor via speakerphone. After their baby was born, the mother asked Velasquez if she would nurse the baby until she arrived at the hospital.
“I never even considered it, but I wasn’t against it,” Velasquez says. So she went on to feed the baby until her parents arrived.
Velasquez explains that contracts between the GS and IPs typically cover pumping breast milk after the baby is born.
“The wording in the contract says that no one is held to it, but that if both parties agree, they’ll continue as long as it’s good for everyone,” she offers the Cliff’s Notes version.
For the following eight months, Velasquez pumped her milk, shipping the breastmilk to the family for about half of that time. For the remainder, she donated to milk bank.
Velasquez describes the demands of exclusively pumping (EP) for a surrogate baby:
“You don’t have a baby, but you are tied to a pump every three hours around the clock. I wake up at four in the morning, and pump eight times a day. It is a huge commitment, not just for me, but for my entire family. It is… so time-consuming.”
But it’s not just the pumping, she adds.
“I have to wash and sanitize, bag and label, freeze, box and ship. My hands are so raw from so much washing that is happening.”
Still, Velasquez continues to provide and donate her milk.
“I’ve always been fascinated with milk,” she begins. “It’s been super important to me.”
Even if the process is grueling, Velasquez says that providing milk to babies is equally satisfying.
“I don’t have tons of money or tons of time to help people, but this is something that I can do,” she explains.
Some GS provide their milk free of charge, but Velasquez says that most charge between 10 cents and one dollar an ounce. In comparison, pasteurized donor human milk (PDHM) comes in at about three to five dollars per ounce and formula feeding costs families between $900 and $3,000 over the first 12 months.
Velasquez estimates that roughly 85 percent of surrogates attempt to EP after birth for various reasons which sometimes include their own mental health and for the purpose of donating.
In the midst of the pandemic, Velasquez says that her most recent surrogacy experience was relatively unaffected aside from having to stay home much of the latter half of her pregnancy.
“It wasn’t the funnest pregnancy, but everyone felt that same heaviness,” she says.
Differently, she assumes the unknowns brought forth by COVID-19 changed the IPs’ experience.
“I feel like it made their journey less enjoyable and more stressful,” she begins. “If I were to get sick, what would happen to the baby? I’m sure it was way less enjoyable having Covid hang over their entire pregnancy.”
Labor and delivery was stressful for everyone though, Velasquez recalls.
Multiple people involved in the process– the IPs, Velasquez and her husband– and ever-changing hospital policies due to COVID-19 made planning stressful and a bit of a logistical nightmare. Ultimately, the hospital was able to accommodate the mother with her own room to await the arrival of her baby.
“During this journey, [the mother] made it very clear that breastmilk was not a priority for them, but I pumped in the hospital and sent them one big shipment of milk,” Velasquez reports.
She goes on to share that the family received faulty information from their pediatrician about the risk of human milk and COVID-19 infection. For up-to-date, evidence-based information on human milk, breastfeeding and COVID-19 click here. In fact, fellow CLC Dr. Rebecca Powell, assistant professor of medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, is studying human milk as a possible treatment for the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Regardless, “it was another Covid issue that [the IPs] didn’t want to take the assumed risk,” she explains.
Last year, just before we became aware of the pandemic, Velasquez became a CLC herself.
“In September 2019, my sister had a baby and she was having trouble latching, so here I am a pump expert– I can map everything out– but my own sister, I don’t know how to help,” Velasquez sighs.
“I brought her to a WIC breastfeeding class hosted at our local hospital by an IBCLC and a WIC peer counselor CLC,” she continues. “I fell in love in that second. ‘I want to be you… how do I be you?’”
Velasquez returned to the class, without a baby, every Thursday for the next six months “just watching in awe.” The lactation professional who led the class mentored her, and when the Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC) came to her town in Hernando County, Fla. she jumped on the opportunity.
“It was awesome. It was perfect,” she says.
Velasquez runs a private lactation practice now, but is currently working with a large obstetric office to offer in-house lactation and breastfeeding support.
Through it all, Velasquez gives her husband a shout out, saying he has been her biggest fan.
“None of this– surrogacy, extended pumping, my CLC– would be possible without my husband’s support,” Velasquez shares.
Velasquez offers her email address for families and individuals interested in learning more about surrogacy: email@example.com. You can also find her on IG @velasquez09. Her vlog can be found here.