An hour and a half after a c section painstakingly hand expressing 1ml of colostrum every hour to the mechanical whirring of a hospital grade breast pump, every 3 hours is how our breastfeeding journey began.
My son was born at 32 weeks; delivered by an emergency c section. I was only able to hold him for a few seconds before he was whisked away to intensive care. We knew he would be early, our lives had consisted of obstetrician appointments and constant monitoring from 24 weeks (due to an issue with my placenta and IUGR) but nothing could have prepared me for how I felt; I was the mother of a preemie and this body which should have kept him safe, nurtured him and nourished him, had failed him.
Providing him with my breast milk is what kept me from falling apart, from feeling so helpless. It was something I could actively do to help him thrive and grow. For the first 24 hours I would hand express every hour with the help of my wonderful husband. 20 minutes of painful expressing would produce just 1-2ml of milk. Those first few days, waiting for my milk to come in were a blur, it was emotionally and physically exhausting. Seeing his tiny body connected to machines and wires, I felt such a squall of emotions; fear, anger, guilt and joy.
The doctors and nurses stressed the importance of breast milk for my son. They explained that my milk was higher in protein and other nutrients than the milk produced by the mother of a full term baby and that it contained invaluable nutrients and immunities that would aid in protecting him whilst his immature immune system developed.
I quickly fell into a routine, for the next 6 weeks, every 3 hours, I would pump for 20/30 minutes, sterilise the pump parts, label up my milk and then spend the rest of my time skin to skin with my baby boy. Providing him with my breast milk became my sole focus as I knew it was essential to him forming a strong and healthy immune system. Even after my milk came in I wasn’t producing more than a total of 2-3 ounces every pumping session. I became almost obsessive, logging the amount I pumped so I could monitor my output over 24 hours and ensure I met his needs.
10 days after his birth we attempted breastfeeding. He just wouldn’t latch. The nurses watching would tell me I was doing everything right and to keep trying. I felt like a failure, something that should come so naturally wasn’t happening for us. A few days later, I was given a nipple shield, to help him latch; it worked immediately and he was able to feed for a few minutes before falling asleep. Slowly, we built up to breastfeeding before every 3 hourly pumping session. But the nipple shield bothered me; it added another dimension to my feelings of failure, but he was feeding and gaining weight and 6 weeks later we were ready to come home.
For weeks I tried to wean him off of the shield, I saw various Lactation consultants, we had his tongue tie corrected but to no avail. Then one day, a couple of months in, he knocked off the shield, latched on and nursed. It was a magical moment. At that time I was determined to get to a year of breastfeeding and now here we are at 17 months. It’s not been an easy ride, from the endless pumping sessions, through to cluster feeding for hours, issues with my milk supply when I was extremely unwell, to milk blisters and blocked ducts, but here we are, sharing an amazing bond and experience.
What a journey it’s been so far, it’s been one of the hardest things I’ve done but also the most rewarding and magical experience.
Breastfeeding, feels to me, one of the most empowering parts of becoming a mother. It has been an incredible bonding experience and all those hours spent feeding have allowed me to just be present and enjoy these special moments with him. It truly is priceless. I know one day this breastfeeding phase of our journey will come to an end and then the next journey of nourishing him with the healthiest of meals will continue. I will always cherish the beautiful memories and moments I have been able to share with my baby boy and know what a wonderful platform he has been given for the future phases of his life.