GUEST POST: By Jean Watts, Mom
When a woman embarks on the adventure of pregnancy she never thinks about the struggles she may face. I was that woman, I had visions of a natural childbirth and a baby that would latch on and start nursing within moments of birth. I had plans to breastfeed my baby for at least a year, because that is what the women in my family all did. Unfortunately, that easy natural birth was not to be. I began having complications at 20 weeks and by 21 weeks was on hospital bedrest an hour and half away from home. I delivered my son, Oliver, at 27 weeks 4 days by emergency C-section.
My mindset had to suddenly and violently shift, I was no longer pregnant and my focus was now on producing milk for my tiny son. I remember being propped up by my mother and a nurse to start pumping hours after the c-section. I was determined to provide milk for my child. I was terrified about my son developing NEC and knew that preemies that were formula fed had 18 times higher chance of developing this devastating infection.
I had visions of producing gallons of milk for him. The reality of my supply slapped me in the face the next day. I would hook myself up to the pump and think about my child and hope for the milk to flow. I was unprepared for the few drips that deposited themselves in the bottles. I felt like my body had let me down on so many levels. I was unable to carry a child to term, and now I was struggling to produce milk for him. Matters were further complicated by a nasty infection I was fighting that had caused me to deliver early, each time I spiked a fever my already meager supply went down. It would take a day or two for it to return to “normal” which was only at the most a half ounce from both breasts. I was also concerned about the massive amounts of antibiotics and pain medications in my system being in my breast milk. The doctors and nurses all assured me that they would not hurt my baby but it still worried me. My life revolved around pumping every 3 hours round the clock, I had a love hate relationship with my pump.
The lactation consultants were my angels, one in particular kept a close eye on me. They followed all the NICU moms who were pumping. They introduced me to the lactation room once I was finally discharged. It took me a few weeks before I was fully comfortable pumping with other women in the room. The lactation room was somewhat of a haven from the craziness of the NICU. It was dimly lit and quite. The women I met in that room became my support network. We were all going through the same things and understood the emotional rollercoaster when you have a baby in the NICU. It also showed me how low my supply was when compared to the other women. I discussed this with my lactation consultant and embarked on a new adventure of trying to increase my supply. I started taking fenugreek, keeping a log, hot showers, massaging my breasts, eating oatmeal, and drank a few beers, kangarooing when possible, and power pumping.
The addition of power pumping made for interesting evenings. I would watch late night television and I would pump in 5 to 10 minute increments for one hour. Power pumping gradually increased my supply and after a few weeks I was able to pump about 2 ounces each time. It was a slow increase but an increase none the less; my son was getting breast milk for half of his feedings. I was hopeful that I would be able to increase enough so that he would not need supplementation. My other goal was that I wanted to have a supply so that when my son was strong enough I would be able to nurse him. I desperately wanted that experience.
The day finally arrived when his neonatologist gave the okay to nurse my son one time a day. I was beyond excited, but very nervous. I had never breastfed and didn’t know how to start, plus he was still on oxygen and had an oral gastric tube. His nurse called the lactation consultant to come and help me. I was told to not get my hopes up since he was still so little and had all the tubes which might affect his ability to sufficiently suck. The lactation consultant came for his next feeding and helped me position my son and he did the rest. He surprised us all by latching on like a champ. It was a wonderful experience and felt so much better than the pump.
Everyone said that once he could nurse my supply would increase, unfortunately that did not happen. I still nursed him whenever I could, but mostly had to pump when he was in the NICU. He was on a high calorie diet so we had to fortify the breast milk to 27 calories. Once he was discharged I would nurse him then offer him a bottle.
At my 6 week post partum visit my midwife prescribed Reglan to help my supply. The medication worked for me but unfortunately I also suffered from some of the side effects mostly horrible anxiety. I took the medication for two months and then decided that I needed to stop taking it since I was not sleeping due to the anxiety.
Ultimately I was able to give my son 5 months of breast milk before my supply dried up. It was a difficult and sad decision to stop nursing him. I still wrestle with my feelings of failure and inadequacy. I know that he got breast milk when it counted the most, and he is now a healthy, thriving, formula fed little boy. Someday I will be at peace with my struggle.