Breastfeeding My Premature Baby
Cirencester, Great Britain
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 25, No. 3, 2008, pp. 10-11
Our son, Benedict, was born at 24 weeks gestation weighing 710 grams (one pound, nine ounces). The doctors gave him only a 20 percent chance of survival. I did not see him until the next day as I was too ill, but I was not prepared for what I saw. He was so tiny and so beautiful. He would have fit in the palm of my hand, and each leg was no bigger around than my little finger. Ben was fighting for his life. He needed a ventilator to help him breathe for the next three weeks. He had several infections, he would sometimes stop breathing, and his heart rate would drop frequently. He had seven blood transfusions, brain scans, and more drugs pumped into him than I care to mention. He had to suffer so much.
In the first three weeks I was only able to hold him once a week when they changed his incubator, and then only for a short while as he would be unable to breathe if his ventilator tubes were moved too much. It didn't feel as though he was mine. The nurses and doctors were keeping him alive, and all I could do for him was express my milk. I say "all" meaning "everything." But it was not just a small thing, but the thing, I believe, that played a huge part in saving his life. With my husband's help, I managed to express two milliliters of colostrum on the second day after his birth, and then began my 11 weeks of expressing. I didn't get on well with the pump -- it was a cold hard machine, and looking at photos of Ben didn't help because he was so ill. This upset me so much that no milk would flow. I tried to persuade my daughter to start breastfeeding again -- she had only given it up three months earlier -- but she had outgrown it, which was also hard for me to come to terms with. She and her big sister were missing their mommy very much, but understood that Ben needed his mommy more.
Then came the day I was asked to leave the hospital as I was well enough to go home. This day was filled with mixed emotions as I missed my daughters, but I wanted to stay with my son and I felt I was abandoning him. The first night was very hard, but I found being with my girls helped my milk supply. When I looked at them the milk would flow, so I soon filled the freezer in the unit at the hospital and then the one at home. They fed Ben my milk through a nasal gastric tube from day four, and slowly increased the amounts as the days and weeks went by. He grew more slowly than the formula fed babies and then was given steroids to try to get him off the ventilator. The steroids, however, stopped him growing altogether. I went into the unit early one morning to be faced with two doctors and three nurses saying, "He's not growing and we need to give him formula milk to make him grow bigger because the bigger his lungs get the more they will improve."
I responded by saying, "You told me the steroids would impair his growth and, from a health point of view, I would prefer just to give him my milk." How I did this I don't know; I'm not a confrontational sort of person. When the steroids were finished he started to grow again and do well enough for them not to talk about formula milk again for a while.
Luckily I was given La Leche League Leader Jill's number and spent many hours talking to her on the phone and finding the strength from somewhere to carry on. My husband was absolutely marvelous and our friends have been wonderful.
I went on expressing my milk by hand because I found it to be less distressing. I was driving my daughters to school, spending the day in the hospital cuddling my son (when "allowed"), then picking up my daughters, cooking dinner, putting them to bed, and expressing my milk. I wrote notes on the hospital freezer and fridge telling the staff to give him the fresh milk first in time order, as what they did as a general rule was to freeze all milk.
As soon as Ben could suckle, I offered him my breast. This was after a few weeks of putting him under my shirt against my breast in only his diaper. To the staff's amazement, he did pretty well. As the days went by, Ben grew stronger.
It became harder to be separated from Ben, so my husband and I decided I would move back into the hospital. There was no room for me, but they couldn't throw me out. Luckily, on the first night, the night nurse took pity on me and gave me a room. The doctor said that if Ben put on weight we could go home -- he had lost 100 grams (3.52 ounces) in weight during the transition from being solely tube fed to being exclusively breastfed. So for two days I put him in nothing but his diaper on my bare chest, only putting him down when I went to eat and to the bathroom. He managed to put on 30 grams. The doctor threw up his arms and said, "You can go home then." I was so proud of myself.
So finally we went home a week before his due date. He weighed 1.97 kilograms (four pounds, five ounces) and was on oxygen because of his chronic lung disease. He caught a virus, which kept coming back. The doctors repeatedly said how amazed they were at how well he was doing, and I wonder if they credited any of this to his being breastfed. Only one doctor asked if I was still breastfeeding. I said "Yes, exclusively breastfeeding."
We are a very happy family and very grateful for the help and support that has come from La Leche League.
Author's Note: I wrote this story nearly two years ago and my beautiful boy has now been signed off from all his doctors, is on no medication, and is developmentally normal, whatever that means! It has been a hard couple of years for my family, but we would not be who we are without Ben. He is such a happy boy and so full of life. He never stops running from when he wakes until bedtime. I'm so glad I managed to breastfeed him, especially when he had a "tummy bug" recently and would have nothing but my milk -- he recovered more quickly than the rest of the family. Soon, another chapter of our lives will begin as Ben starts nursery school!
Editor's Note: This story was adapted with permission from LLLGB News.