My breastfeeding Journey by Michele Marriott
Whilst pregnant with my little boy, the thing I was looking forward to most, when he was earth side, was breastfeeding. I hoped our breastfeeding journey would be a successful one and that I’d be able to do extended breastfeeding.
At 32 weeks gestation, I went into spontaneous pre-term labour. I was able to deliver naturally but he was taken away from me straight away as he wasn’t breathing. The paediatricians worked their magic and whisked him off to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
Whilst the midwife was stitching me up, I panicked. I told her that my milk hadn’t come in yet. I’d never had leaky boobs! She told me not to worry because once the placenta is expelled milk production begins.
Once the midwife had left the room, I was left feeling in a dream like state. I didn’t have my baby with me, I’d never held my baby. Where was he? Was this all a dream? Was I still pregnant?
I imagined my first moments with my little boy to be more along the lines of precious skin to skin cuddles that lead to that beautiful first latch moment. But that wasn’t going to be how our breastfeeding journey began.
When the midwife returned, I asked her what to do about my milk. I knew I needed to get milk from my breasts within a few hours of his arrival. She told me not to worry about it right now.
A few hours after Beau’s arrival, I was able to go and visit him in the NICU. Before I left, I asked them again about expressing. They just told me to go and get some sleep and we’d discuss it in the morning.
At 6.30am the next day I was back in the NICU visiting Beau and asking about expressing. They just gave me a small plastic bag with a leaflet and some syringes in.
I went back to my room and sat on the bed trying to work it all out. The leaflet told me how to correctly hand express and to collect the colostrum in the syringes. It took quite a while to get the first drop from my breasts. I couldn’t work out how to collect it with the syringe so instead used a little cup. After about an hour of trying, I got really upset. I was hardly getting anything out. Probably about 1ml. I expected to be filling these syringes. I rang the bell for a midwife to come. When she arrived I told her that I couldn’t get much milk out. She told me that I’d done a fantastic job and that was the amount they’d expect.
Beau was on a glucose drip for the first few days as he had to have CPAP (a mask to help him with his breathing). So, I was able to build up a stash of colostrum for him in his fridge. I spent hours hunched over, squeezing that precious liquid gold out. Filling the syringes. I hand expressed every few hours. My neck and shoulders were so stiff, but that didn’t matter as I was providing for my little boy.
Expressing milk for Beau made me feel like his mum. I didn’t get to hold him until he was 4 days old. The nurses did everything for him but providing him with that all important milk was something that only I could do for him. I used to feel such pride when I entered the hospital in the morning with the milk I’d collected over night. I’d fill his fridge and collect more syringes to take home.
On day 4, Beau began to have my milk. He had a NG tube. So he was fed through his nose. He started on 1ml per hour because his stomach was too tiny for any more. They had to gradually stretch his stomach. On day 7, I had a bit of a meltdown. They were quickly upping his feeds. He was on 16ml every 2 hours as he was taking to it so well. I felt like I couldn’t keep up with the amount of milk he would be needing. I knew breastmilk was the best thing for a premature baby. They have immature digestive systems and they struggle to cope with formula. Beau was being such a brave warrior, coping with everything that comes with arriving early and breathing on his own, I just couldn’t let him down. I had a big cry in front of one of the nurses and she told me that I was doing a fantastic job. She told me it’s a much harder job for preemie mums as our bodies aren’t ready to be producing milk yet, so we have to work extra hard for it. She told me, when I went home that night, to have a bath and not worry about it. She said the more I worried about it, the more it would affect my supply. I felt like I was letting Beau down. The only thing I could do for him and I was failing at it.
The following day my supply had increased and for the next few weeks I was able to meet his milk needs and also start to build up extra in the hospital freezer. I was double pumping now, using a pump the hospital let preemie mums take home. There was a pumping room in the NICU, where I’d go throughout the day to pump for him, whilst my husband stayed by his side. I looked at photos of him and had a little crocheted heart that he kept in his incubator, which had his smell on, to help stimulate let downs.
At 34 weeks, Beau was able to begin practicing locating my nipple and having a little go at breast feeding. Babies don’t begin to practice the suck and swallow reflex until 34 weeks gestation. We used to put Beau to the breast whilst feeding him through his NG tube, so he would relate getting a full tummy of milk from breastfeeding.
The breastfeeding support in hospital was limited. I was shown how to hold him across my body and where to place him. Whilst Beau breastfed, they would come over and check to see if I was doing it right and they seemed happy with how it was all going.
After 3 weeks, we were able to stay in the hospital flat, so we could move onto exclusively breastfeeding Beau. It started off well. The nurse said he was doing fantastically. We’d record all his feeds on his sheet and they didn’t have any concerns. They told me not to express anymore.
A nurse on the night shift had concerns though. She said Beau was feeding for too long and he seemed lethargic. She said he was probably exhausted from breastfeeding as it uses up a lot of their energy. She also said he wasn’t latching correctly. When we tried to get Beau to feed again, he wasn’t interested. She had a big chat with me about it all. She said that he was struggling to keep his temperature and that breastfeeding wasn’t helping him. He could use his energy to keep warm or to feed, but not both. She said that if we wanted to get him home the best thing was to bottle feed him my expressed milk. This was something that hadn’t even crossed my mind. In my head it was either breastfeed via nursing or bottle feed him formula. She said that they’d put the NG tube back in if we couldn’t get him to take milk. She said if I really wanted to breastfeed him then to wait until we were home in a more relaxed environment. So, we went with the bottle of expressed milk. He took to it like a champ and in the next few days put on a big chunk of weight.
After a month in the NICU, we were able to bring Beau home. My health visitor came out the following week to help with breastfeeding. She said Beau’s mouth was too small, that’s why he wasn’t latching great. So we used a nipple shield. It worked perfectly for us. Beau was to breastfeed, then we would top him up with expressed milk and I would pump. Over a few weeks we dropped his top ups and weighed him weekly to check his progress. The first week he maintained, so we upped the top up again and he started to put on lots of weight. It was an exhausting process but seeing him thrive made it all worthwhile.
Over the next couple of months I managed to get Beau to just breastfeed during the day, using the shields still. It was so much more relaxing for me. I finally felt that we were getting close to the top of the mountain. I couldn’t get him to breastfeed at night, but my husband gave him his milk via a bottle and I expressed during these feeds.
At 4 months old, Beau began teething. He started to refuse the breast. I was very persistent but he used to scream hysterically. I didn’t want him to see it as a negative thing so I wouldn’t force it. I had to bring bottles of expressed milk back into our daytime feeds. He began to really hurt me when he fed, too. It was so painful. I tried to get him off the shield as he was sucking my nipple through the holes in the end. But he wouldn’t feed without it. I carried on offering the breast first for every feed but he refused it.
By the time he was 6 months old, I was exclusively pumping again. I still had hope to keep me going. I hoped so much that I’d be able to get him back to the breast. But it never happened. I struggled to come to terms with this. As a prem mum, your options and choices are taken away from you. Beau having my milk was the one thing that I could control. It was my choice. I had a very supportive group of people around me, in real life and online. Yes, some people would suggest formula feeding him as “it’s easier”. They couldn’t understand why I had a strict pumping schedule, why it was so important to me for him to have my milk. But being a very determined person, I stuck to it.
When Beau was 8 months old, I knew that our breastfeeding journey was never going to look like the way I dreamt it to be whilst pregnant. Our journey was to look much different. I had got to 8 months, I may as well keep going for another 6 months and reach his corrected first birthday. I’d got through the hardest part. I’d got through those days when I thought I couldn’t do one more pump. The months were it felt like he cried constantly with colic and norovirus and I just didn’t know when he’d let me pump. The driving around whilst pumping as it was the only way he’d let me pump.
So, we kept going.
When Beau was 10 months old, I began hand expressing rather than pumping. I did this three times a day and kept up with his demand. When he was almost 11 months old I started back at work and began to hand express morning and night. I had a freezer stash that I dipped into when needed. My health visitor told me that once he reached a year old I could mix feed him with plant milk to take the pressure off me (I’d always been a just enough milk maker, I only had a little freezer stash to say I’d pumped for the majority of our journey). We did this. Beau decided that Soya Growing Up milk was way nicer than breastmilk and began to refuse my breastmilk. So after 13 months of expressing, I stopped. There was no point in continuing if the little monkey was no longer interested. I got him through that first year, with all of those antibodies to protect him. I looked back and realised what an achievement it was and I was so proud of myself. A feeling that for most of the year I’d never felt. Instead I’d felt like a failure. I was the complete opposite of that though.
Looking back, knowing what I now know, I would have done a lot of things differently in those first few months. But at the time I did what I thought was the best for Beau with the advice and support I received. If I am so lucky as to be blessed with a babe again, I will make sure to have a lactation consultant ready to support me in those first few weeks. During our hospital time, there was very little support because of lack of staff and funding. I was naïve in thinking that I would go full term and breastfeeding would be something that came naturally and easily to us. I feel a lot more prepared and educated if there’s ever a next time.
Expressing was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. So very worth it though. It’s changed me as a person and looking back, I don’t even know how I made it through some days. But you just do. You have no other choice. You just do it. Your baby is your world and you’d do anything for them. Most days in those first four months, I’d have Beau over my shoulder, trying to soothe him, whilst holding my pumps on with one hand. I’d have him on a cushion on my knees, bouncing him up and down so I could pump. When my husband went to work in a morning, I’d think to myself, just 4 pumping sessions until he’s home to help again. As he got older and I purchased a pumping bra and a rechargeable breast pump (life savers) I would be able to sit him down and we’d read stories and sing songs. As he dropped his naps, I dropped pumping sessions, otherwise it became too stressful.
If I’d have known the path that lay ahead for me, I would have dreaded it. I found it really difficult. I just used to take a pump at a time. There were many days in those early months where I’d cry because I was finding it hard to keep to the pumping schedule. Beau was a very demanding and intense baby.
Exclusively pumping is not something I’d want to do again but I know I would if I had no other choice. The benefits outweigh the downsides.
When you express for your baby, it is a selfless act. You don’t get the little face looking up at you whilst feeding, the closeness, the being still with your baby. You literally put your life on hold to pump for your baby. Every nap time is a pumping time. But you see your baby thrive and grow because of you. You give them the best possible start. But when that pumping journey comes to an end, don’t forget to fill up your cup, make it over flow. You definitely deserve it.