WOW – what a display of the power of a determined mother! This one may call for a box of tissues nearby… an absolute rollercoaster of an entry to motherhood and breastfeeding, thank you for sharing this inspirational journey with us Holly.
Our twin boys were born at 30 weeks, the pregnancy had been difficult as we knew one of our boys would heartbreakingly die shortly after birth from Edwards Syndrome and that I would surely go into premature labour. Whilst Rory was born tiny but healthy, his brother sadly passed away after birth. Rory was immediately admitted to NICU where we knew he would be for at least 6 weeks.
Since finding out I was pregnant it had always been our intention to breastfeed, my Mum was an NCT breastfeeding counsellor and me and my siblings were all breastfed, I knew that I wanted to try to do it for 6 months but wasn’t adverse to formula and have never held any judgement about formula fed babies in the slightest.
Rory being so tiny did present obvious complications but we also knew that especially for premature babies, breast milk was by far the best thing I could do for him in the early stages. As he was so little and underdeveloped and needed to spend 23 hours in his incubator in the early days, he had a nasal gastric (NG) tube for feeding. The nurses encouraged all the new mums of babies in the unit to hand express and then pump (even if you had no intention of breastfeeding for any length of time), and it immediately became a bit of an obsession for me. I felt enormous pressure from myself to ‘pump enough’ as really the expressing was the only thing I could do for my tiny baby. Skin to skin was encouraged but I didn’t get to hold Rory for two days, and once we did he was attached to so many wires and tubes that fear took over for me and I’m not sure how much I could really let the oxytocin do it’s thing. The advice from the nurses was to pump every 3 hours to keep my supply up, and pumping did not come easily to me. It would be a slow painstaking process and now with hindsight I never experienced a ‘let down’ when pumping. The sound of the monotonous pump would drive my husband mad, especially at night (though he was incredibly supportive of my choice to feed right from the get go!) and as the amount of milk Rory could take down the NG tube increased I found it hard to keep up with what he needed.
However I did persevere and at 34 weeks he started to display the rooting reflex and the nurses encouraged me to start to attempt to feed him myself. Their support during this time was monumental. I cannot explain how vital they were to me actually being able to transfer from pumping to breastfeeding. They made sure I ate and drank and reminded me to pump. They sat patiently with me behind a screen each time we tried to feed. My boobs were 5 times the size of my tiny baby’s head and I would get flustered and hot and upset that he just couldn’t seem to latch (or fit my seemingly giant nipples into his mouth). But their relaxed, encouraging and patient approach meant that at two weeks later (with a tongue tie also resolved) he was feeding well from me and we were ready for discharge. The pumping experience was so so different to feeding him. Yes, I had problems with discomfort, he clicked when he fed and needed constant repositioning due to being so small, but I finally felt the ‘let down’ and that my milk was actually coming in fully, which gave me a little confidence that we could make this work at home.
We’d had some upsets during his final weeks in special care, Rory had severe GERD which in its extremes caused him to struggle to breathe and on one occasion he’d needed oxygen revival. It also meant if he fed too enthusiastically he would turn blue and vomit and splutter. We were sent home with baby CPR training. In the early days at home I would start to dread to feed, for fear of the reflux and what this might mean post feed. I remember nights of tears from all three of us when I couldn’t get Rory to latch, my husband would be gently holding his flailing hands whilst I tried to get him on, sometimes for hours, for him for to feed for 6 minutes and then vomit the feed up again. It really felt like such an incredible challenge during those first weeks and even months. But we just persisted, talking to everyone we could for advice, being choice about the advice we took and largely staying in the house to focus on making the feeds relaxed and eventually we all got into a rhythm with it, albeit an awkward one. The reflux became the norm and manageable, and the feeds gradually became more relaxing for us all. I was able to go out and feel comfortable feeding in public, though honestly, I’d always prefer to feed in the car or out of sight just so I could fully relax.
I ended up exclusively feeding Rory until he was 18 months. With hindsight I feel incredibly proud of all of us for overcoming the hurdles we had at the start, but also so so incredibly lucky that I had access to the support from the NICU nurses, my mother and my husband. It was a team effort and there is no way I could have established feeding without this invaluable help.
Looking back, I found my own lack of confidence my biggest obstacle, during his stay in hospital Rory was weighed every day and I found it hard not to obsess over 10g gains or losses when we got him home. My husband eventually took away the baby scales
I bought. I was constantly fearful that feeding wasn’t going well and I think that without support I might have switched to formula in order to have more control over the oz or ml he was consuming. The only thing that built my confidence was to see him develop, his shining eyes and chubby rolls eventually convinced me we had cracked it.
As we started weaning I decided to gradually stop offering feeds one by one during the day and only feed if he asked for one. By 16/17 months we were down to one final feed before bed (as well as multiple at night) and for various reasons we decided to see if he was ready to stop at 18 months. We’d done Sing and Sign from an early age and Rory was also quite vocal so I gently communicated ‘all gone’ before bed, offered water and then cuddled and rocked to him to sleep and he stopped pretty easily. He’s now 2.9 years and doing great! His reflux resolved by a year old though he still needs cuddles to fall asleep – we don’t mind this, he’s making up for those he missed at the start.
My advice to any mums but especially those with premature or poorly babies is to first and foremost, be kind to yourself. I have always said that my relationship with breastfeeding was love / hate. I need to be honest and say that there were days (maybe weeks) when I absolutely hated it, resented the overwhelming sole responsibility of keeping this baby alive, and there were times where I felt totally touched out with it all. I also had days where I loved it, the clawing hands and little smiles between us were the truly special moments I’ll always remember. I’d tell any Mum that breastfeeding can be hard, it’s a team effort that’s not always an easy option and requires commitment and support from those around you just as much as your own desire. Seek help and support wherever you can. Look at the baby and not the charts and trust your instincts.
If you would like to contribute to the Feeding Friday blog, I would be honoured to receive your story – simply get in touch at steph@doitlikeamother for more info.
If you are in need of breastfeeding support we have two groups running at the Do It Like A Mother HQ each week, head to the facebook page’s for more details: