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How I Breastfed My Premies

by Cynthia Whitney
Dallas TX USA
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 22 No. 1, January-February 2005, pp. 14-17

I expected breastfeeding to be challenging. I read as many books as I could on the topic and was prepared, or so I thought, to breastfeed. In the summer of 2001, my husband, Al, and I were thrilled to watch the pregnancy test show a positive result. We were a little anxious because I had had two miscarriages before, so we rushed to make an appointment with my doctor. He confirmed what we already knew and we prepared, as best we could, for our baby's arrival.

My husband was finishing up his doctorate in Environmental Engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and received a job offer at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, USA. We would be moving during my sixth month of pregnancy in February 2002. Luckily, my doctor in Chapel Hill connected me with a doctor in Texas.

After we arrived, I met with my new doctor, preregistered at the hospital, and signed up for a birth education class. I had been having mild cramps every day since the move, but since I couldn't time them, I thought they were Braxton Hicks contractions and I didn't worry too much. Two weeks after our big move, at 31 weeks pregnant, I went into labor. When I arrived at the hospital, I was already one centimeter dilated and 90 percent effaced. The doctor tried to stop the labor, but succeeded only in slowing down the contractions enough so I could receive steroid injections to strengthen my son's lungs. After five days, we came to the decision that it would be better for my health and his if he was born. I was experiencing side effects from the medications and the labor was progressing anyway. Soon after I gave birth to Ferris, he was whisked off to the Special Care Unit with my husband in tow.

I did not hold Ferris until the next day. I was distraught. I'll never forget walking into the Special Care Unit, sitting down in the rocking chair next to his isolette, and letting the nurse hand me an awkward bundle of love. Under the IV taped to his arm, the feeding tube, the sensors attached to his stomach, the monitor on his foot, was my baby boy. I broke down and sobbed. I loved him so much.

Since Ferris was premature, he didn't know how to nurse yet so I met with lactation consultants, got a breast pump, and went to work. I was going to breastfeed no matter what. I pumped and pumped. I pumped so much that the nurses had more than enough of my milk. Every now and then we put Ferris to the breast, but he would not latch on. Once in a while he sucked a little and fell asleep.

Ferris was released from the hospital about three weeks after he was born. I wanted to breastfeed. I tried so hard and pumped often. I was convinced that I wasn't making enough milk because the amount of milk I pumped wasn't the same amount of nourishment they gave him in the hospital every three hours. I thought that I needed to supplement with formula. I even purchased a nursing trainer system to hang around my neck and tape to my breasts so he could get more milk when we tried nursing. I ended up breastfeeding for only three months.

A couple of years later, I found out that I was pregnant with my second son. By then, we had purchased a house in a neighborhood in Dallas, Texas, USA. We decided to switch doctors so I could give birth near our home. Since I read somewhere that women who give birth to a baby prematurely are more likely to have another premature birth, I prepared myself. I also made friends with several mothers in the neighborhood—all who had breastfed or were breastfeeding their children.

They inspired me with their ease and confidence. I studied them and asked them questions. I signed up for a breastfeeding and birthing class and took them as soon as I could. The day after my breastfeeding class ended, at 34 weeks, I went into labor. I gave birth to Simon on January 17, 2004. This time around, I held him before he was whisked him away to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). He was beautiful.

During Simon's three-week stay at the hospital, I told myself that he was not going to come home without knowing how to breastfeed. Like his brother, Simon did not know how to breastfeed yet so I spent up to 12 hours a day at the hospital, pumping every two to three hours. I visited with my Simon, fed him through his tube, and then pumped. At home, I pumped before I went to bed, once in the middle of the night, and after I woke up.

Meanwhile, I was also working with a physical therapist, who helped me train Simon how to take a bottle, and lactation consultants, who showed me different techniques for teaching Simon how to breastfeed. I'll never forget the first time that he latched on. I had tears in my eyes. The nurse was almost as excited as I was. She knew how hard I had been trying to breastfeed, and it was just as rewarding for her to see him latch on.

After that moment, Simon was weighed before and after each feeding by the nurses. The weight he gained corresponded to the amount of milk that he received at my breast. One cc (or milliliter) of my milk equaled one microgram of weight gained. After each weigh in, I felt more and more confident. The only thing he needed to be supplemented with was my expressed milk.

One day, the nurse told me that I could breastfeed on demand during her shift. She explained that I wouldn't be feeding Simon every three hours when we took him home (as they do in the hospital) if I wanted to breastfeed exclusively. Premies eat more frequently than full term babies.

We put away the scale and I started my 12 hour breastfeeding shift. I breastfed Simon every hour to hour and a half. It was exhausting, but one of the most thrilling days of my life. We were a team and we were doing it! He didn't fuss—he was the happiest I'd seen him during the first three weeks of his life. He was released from the hospital the following day.

I was so tired for the first three months of Simon's life. He nursed every 45 minutes to an hour and a half. Before I went to bed, he didn't leave my breast. He didn't use a pacifier, and I didn't have time to pump in between the frequent feeds, so Simon forgot how to use a bottle. It was very exhausting, but I got support from friends who had breastfed and Maria, my La Leche League Leader. There were many times in the middle of the night when I thought about stopping, but my husband was there to encourage and remind me of how healthy and happy our son was. I took it one day at a time. Before I knew it, breastfeeding became second nature to me.

Ferris is now two years old and Simon is eight months old. They are both as precious as can be and are healthy and strong. The most important information I would share with a mother of a premie is not to give up. Human milk is the healthiest food for babies, and premies need all the help they can get. After my breastfeeding journeys with Ferris and Simon, I realize that it doesn't matter if my milk went down a tube, through a bottle, or from my breast. What matters was that I did all I could to help my children be healthy and grow.

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