I gave birth to my son 9 weeks early, after a hideous, foreshortened pregnancy that included bleeding gushes, trips to the ER, and bedrest. When I delivered him, I did so with the calm I only have during a crisis: before, I was inconsolably anxious about carrying him to term, and after, I worried constantly about his health and prematurity. When I gave birth – with an epidural, after only 15 minutes of pushing – he was whisked away from me, assessed and immediately taken up to the NICU (the neonatal intensive care unit). My husband ran after him. I stayed in the room alone and made awkward conversation with the sweet medical student who was supposed to explain breastfeeding and postpartum care to me.
I was then put in a recovery room, where a lactation consultant brightly chirped about the importance of breastfeeding and then handed me a stack of reading material and an enormous breastpump. I had never seen one and didn’t know how to use it; my sister showed me how to put it together. I carefully cleaned all the parts and tried to pump. It hurt, and I got nothing out. I dutifully tracked this “progress” in a notebook, as my reading materials told me to. I did this every hour and a half, writing, “7:30 pm; pumped 20 minutes; nothing” over and over. A couple of times, I triumphantly wrote, “9:30 am, pumped 20 minutes, ONE DROP!” In between incessant pumping sessions, I would go visit my son one floor up, who was in an incubator, with an oxygen mask covering his whole face, an IV in his tiny vein in his foot, and wires attached to his chest and abdomen. Then I would go back to my room and pump again. Once that first night, a mother came into the NICU and triumphantly held up her 5-oz. bottle of milk, crowing, “I guess my body just WANTS to feed my baby!” And I burst into tears, because not only did my body not want to feed my baby, it didn’t even want to keep him safe in my uterus.
My son was born at 4 pounds and spent 32 days in the NICU. I spent every day there, usually for about 4-5 hours a day. I would pump at the NICU, in the open – you could pull a makeshift room divider around your chair to simulate privacy, but I uncaringly exposed myself to anyone in the room. When my son came out of the incubator, I would hold him while I pumped and he received my breastmilk through a tube down his nose, so he would associate me with food. A few weeks later, when he could try nursing, I would situate myself with a nursing pillow, carefully undo his wires, and try to help him eat. To prepare to do so would take about 20 minutes; on a good day, he would latch for about 20 seconds, and then we’d give him the rest of the milk through his tube. A week or two after that, he could nurse sometimes, and we would have to weigh him before and after to make sure he was consuming food. Sometimes he did, and sometimes he didn’t. I started using a nipple shield to help his tiny, preemie mouth; the chirpy lactation consultant warned me that he might have nipple confusion and that I should really try not to use the shield. I remember looking at her and saying, “Nipple confusion is the Cadillac of worries here. I just want him to eat.”
When he came home, I continued to nurse with the shield and I pumped all day. Then I lost the shield, so we did without. He fattened up beautifully, and I’m still nursing. But even now, some days are a struggle. For a while, we didn’t know how much he was eating, and every time someone told me to trust my body or my baby — because it makes/he takes what it/he needs! – I wanted to punch them in the face. Nature and my body had already failed this baby. Or when people chirp, “Breast is best!” I try not to let my head explode. Breastmilk, I now know, doesn’t convey vitamin D, which my little preemie needs to help his skeleton harden. It also is a crappy conveyer of iron, which develops in fetuses during the third trimester, which my son missed out on. Formula supplementation isn’t just a convenience for us, it’s a nutritional necessity. I wish there were more disinterested nutritional information like this, rather than inflated and judgmental claims about the miracle of breastmilk or the tragedy of formula.
He’s now 7 ½ months old, and I still nurse, pump, and give him formula, plus some disgusting pureed food that he inexplicably seems to like. Post-NICU, I have had to deal with low supply, over-engorgement, too-fast flow, a minor dairy allergy, and enormous amounts of self-doubt, anxiety, and shame. I’m embarrassed to admit that when I did have too much milk, I felt a small, smug sense of victory, like I was getting this mothering thing right. And when it looked like I had low supply, I felt like a failure and that my son would get sick immediately. I still talk about nursing constantly, in terms of when to wean my son. (Responses to that have ranged from disgusted shock that I don’t plan to nurse until he’s 2 to disgusted shock that I’m still nursing at 7 ½ months.) I’m grateful for this forum and for everyone’s stories. I hope my story is helpful, too, particularly to those of us with preemies.