Alone, in a hospital room attached to an industrial pump is not where anyone imagines their breastfeeding journey to begin, yet this was my reality the morning after my little girl was delivered.
I was taken to theatre at 30+2 to save her. Minutes after delivery she was taken to NICU, a tiny one pound eleven ounces, 783g of teeny perfection. I mourned losing those first skin to skin cuddles, the first feed while she was lying on my chest. I waited for ten hours to be able to get another glimpse of her. Another twelve after before I could hold her.
The staff in the delivery suite were fantastic. They knew I wanted to try to breastfeed, and now it was even more important that I did. At her tiny size and premature gestation my milk was the best medicine she could have. The breastfeeding support staff came along with my industrial double pump. I was hooked up and shown how to use it, with explicit instructions of ten pumps a day. Ten alarms set to remind me my baby wasn’t with me. Overnight pump alarms woke me instead of her hungry cries. It was exhausting.
She started on continual tube feeds of 0.4ml an hour. She didn’t tolerate it. Over the next three weeks her feeds stopped and started as the staff tried to prevent NEC developing-a serious disease affecting the smallest early prem babies. We transferred to another hospital in case surgery was required. Eventually, the threat passed. Eventually she started tolerating her feeds. She swapped from a continual feed to two hourly bolus tube feeds. Working up to 30ml a feed.
At one month old, she hit a kilogram. We were given the green light to try at the breast feeds. Still extremely small this was never going to be easy. Her first attempts saw her lapping the drips off my boobs like a cat. Her mouth so small she wasn’t able to latch and suck. I couldn’t see where we could go to help. Lucky for me, the ward sister knew how determined I was to feed. She brought me some nipple shields one day to try and away we went! They were a revelation and Ivy-Rose was able to complete two feeds a day herself. At six weeks old we were feeding on demand during daytime hours.
NICU parents are expected to room in for 48 hours before they are discharged. My 48 hours turned into a fortnight. We knew she would drop weight with the effort she needed to make to feed herself without tubes. This fortnight nearly broke me. One small weight loss of 40g kept us in for discharge attempt one. A static weigh in kept us in on discharge attempt two. By attempt five I wasn’t sure we would ever get home. My resolve was wavering as consultant after consultant suggested I stop feeding and give her bottles. I stood firm knowing that breast milk was what she needed. As a compromise she was given a breast milk fortifier in a bottle top up of expressed milk for four feeds per day. This knocked her weight gain up enough that at three pounds and six ounces, sixty one days old, we were allowed to go home.
I was lucky enough to be visited twice at home by our local lactation consultant to check on us in those first few days at home. She showed me how to help Ivy-Rose feed with positioning that worked with her size and not against it.
At sixteen weeks Ivy-Rose self weaned off the shields. She knocked it off one day, and away she went. It took about ten days for her to relearn to latch and I fed through gritted teeth. Eventually this settled, as it has with every tooth, cold, feeding acrobatics and more.
I was even luckier to meet a breastfeeding peer supporter at a baby group who invited me along to a meeting. The preconceived idea I had that you only went for help soon disappeared when I found a group of mothers with babies the same age who met each week for coffee, cake and sanity! Through that chance meeting I found a group of women who have supported each other through the cluster feeding, teething biting, sleepless nights, feeding strikes and tears. They made my maternity leave turn from isolation as a preemie parent into one with lifelong friendships. They celebrated every milestone with us, from an ounce weight gain to each time she kicked ass and had medication removed. Finally, at golden boobies time, she reached that 0.4 centile at her corrected gestation. A milestone I didn’t expect to reach.
13 months old and showing no signs of stopping, this is not what I thought breastfeeding would look like but it hasn’t half been rewarding.