A Preemie Mom Talks Frankly About Pumping, Breast Feeding, and How NOT Easy It Can Be

This the first in a series of three guest posts from Audrey, mom to three premature babies whose adventures in pumping for and breast feeding preemies may help some of our readers feel less alone during Prematurity Awareness Month. Did you know that 500,000 babies are born prematurely each year in the US? Here’s one mom’s story of struggling to feed three of them:

Those who know me personally know that I’m a super pro breastfeeding mom.  To my friends and co-workers I’ve become a go-to person for breastfeeding advice and stories.  Through some random prejudice against me while pumping for my firstborn at work, I have jokingly been referred to as a “pro-breastfeeding activist” to some.  Haha!  It’s funny though because I was solely formula fed as a baby.  Frankly, until I became a scientist, but mainly till I had kids of my own, I never really gave it much thought.  I grew up fine on formula and I’ve known tons of others who have as well.  Yet it has been proven over and over that nothing comes close to breast milk.

When I became pregnant with Kat I decided I wanted to nurse.  I bought a pump and figured I would give it a try.  I decided to put little pressure on myself and had told Chris that I would give it six months at max since that is all I truly saw the benefit for at the time.  I thought the antibodies passed in the first six months to my baby were very important and I also felt the money savings were an added bonus.

I purchased the pump early on with a coupon but threw it in the corner of our office and gave it little thought.  Little did I know that instead of holding my baby for the first time, I’d be holding that pump a few months later.  Within a few weeks life threatening complications were discovered and we were told that Kat was coming extremely early.  I of course began researching everything I could and kept finding that nursing was the best thing I could do for her and was the best thing I could do to ensure bonding with my baby.

The first thing I remember asking about once I confirmed her condition after delivery was when I could start pumping.  The nurse said, “Why don’t you worry about feeling your legs and not throwing up first before you think about pumping?”  Haha!  I just wanted so badly to do the only thing I could…to try to “make up” for the fact that she was born early.  It’s funny how even when things are out of our control…we try to fix it…or make up for the fact that things happened the way they did.

I remember sitting there with my mom in my hospital room trying to figure out how to put the pump together and I remember rejoicing over the few drops of milk I got a couple of tries later.  I remember how amazing I felt when the NICU called up and told me how much Kat seemed to enjoy the drop of milk they put on her pacifier and how it seemed to calm her.  I remember collecting it in a tiny syringe.  “Liquid gold” is what they called it…  Though I couldn’t hold her, I felt like I was bonding with her in this way.  I remember the doctors telling me how Kat used to refuse the preemie formula and only wanted to drink my milk.  I have to admit it made my heart so full of happiness to think she needed me or wanted me in some way…like I was that vital piece that could only satisfy or comfort her.  Sometimes as a mom with a kid in the NICU you feel like you can’t comfort or satisfy your kid…you feel like you’re not needed as the mom.

I pumped and pumped and felt like a cow.  I had tons of stored milk and I had high hopes that she would one day actually nurse from me.  I remember vividly trying for the first time, the day before she came home.  It was a hot mess!  Two lactation consultants came to help and I was afraid I was going to suffocate her because she was so tiny.  She was just too weak and would tire out.  I never got true help and was simply told that I’d figure it out.

For months, Kat and I tried to figure it out but we never really did.  She would nurse a bit for comfort but that was it…I kept pumping.  Katherine developed allergies and suffered from intestinal issues due to necrotizing enterocolitis. I had to go on food elimination diets and eventually she was put on an elemental formula…but I kept pumping.  My supply dwindled and I’d spend hours pumping for a couple of ounces.  I drank the teas and swallowed enough fenugreek tablets to smell like syrup…but I kept pumping.

I remember literally crying over dropping two ounces before.  Whoever said you shouldn’t cry over spilled milk had obviously never pumped!  I felt so strongly in my head that nursing was going to be the answer to the mother baby bond I was desperately looking for…the normalcy I wanted.  I stored all the milk and almost like a miracle, she overcame her intolerance of my milk and was able to eventually drink it.

I told everyone that it didn’t bother me that she didn’t nurse but secretly it did.  I think in a way it made me feel less of a mom.

I became pregnant again when Kat was just eleven months old and was told to stop pumping/nursing immediately due to my pre-term delivery risks (still a lot of debate over this).  I was told to cut her off cold turkey…even suckling for comfort had to end.  When I did I thought she was going to cry or be upset but it was like she didn’t care.  She simply clung to Chris and it was like she didn’t need me any more (so it seemed…hey I was all high on preggo hormones).  This combined with my feelings of failing at nursing is probably why I was hell bent on making nursing work with my second child.

Though still premature, Juju was born under completely different circumstances and I was able to try to nurse her starting at day three.  She latched on immediately and was a nursing champ ever since.  I think what made a huge difference was my confidence and determination.  I knew what to expect and I didn’t have the mentality that I was going to give up.  I was afraid to even give her a bottle or let my husband take a feeding (though I did get over this).  I woke up for all feeds and this time I never had a supply issue.  I pumped while she was in the NICU and I pumped for the first 14 months at work.   I’m proud to say that I nursed her for two and a half years. With Juju I got the nursing bonding experience I always dreamed about and for that reason I wish that everyone could experience it.  Nursing has created a very close mother and baby bond between us and since preemies are oftentimes separated from their mothers, anything that can strengthen this bond should be encouraged.

Then, I had my third very premature baby due to a placenta abruption.  With him, I was a nursing pro.  In fact, the lactation consultants asked me to attend many meetings with other new moms because of my experience by that point.  It is tough pumping for and nursing a premature child.  He is now five months and while he struggles, I see a few happy nursing years in our future.

I shared all of this because though as a Preemie group we are constantly preaching the importance of breastfeeding (WHICH IS BEST, especially for preemies), sometimes no matter how hard we try, it just doesn’t work out.  We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make it work because we think that since we couldn’t carry them full-term that it is the least we can do…or at least that is how I’ve always felt.  How many preemie moms have had their milk dry up yet they’ve woken up every two to three hours to pump half an ounce of milk for months upon months?  Then do you feel guilt when you finally decide to give up nursing or pumping?  I remember someone saw me give Kat a bottle of Elecare formula and ask me why I wasn’t nursing since she was a preemie and that was best?  I felt like such an awful mother.  Many preemie moms can’t nurse because of medication they are on, their milk dries up for various reasons, or their children are too sick/weak to ever latch.  So while I am and will always be a pro-breast feeding mom, I just wanted to let you know that I too have been on the other end of the spectrum where it didn’t work out as I hoped.  I know many preemie moms receive wonderful lactation support but I didn’t the first time and question how many were like me.

Support is important on so many levels.

And I wanted to put out a few truths (there should be a whole book published on pregnancy/birth/post birth truths that no one ever tells you but they should)…yes, nursing is natural and has been done since the dawn of time but it is not so easy to figure out sometimes.  There is a learning curve with nursing!  Not every baby nurses the same.  Just because it didn’t work well with one doesn’t mean it also won’t work with another.  Also, whoever said it is painless is lying.  Everything hurts for the first two weeks it seems but then it gets better…it gets to be pain/discomfort free.

Now sometimes if the latch is wrong pain can be worse because of that…but I’ve never met a nursing mom who has said it is pain free for the first couple of weeks (if you exist please let me know and I’ll retract my statement   ).  Nursing is also tiring and pumping is even more tiring.  Frankly, pumping is just plain exhausting but it is worth it.  Finally, some babies have issues with latch and their mouth and sometimes if not corrected, no matter how hard you try, they won’t be able to nurse.  This is not your fault!  I think if people were more honest with new moms, more young moms would stick it out.  There are so many things I thought I knew about nursing till I actually did it.  The best way to be successful is to have a good support system.  Don’t be too shy to ask!

I also want to mention that even if you can’t nurse there are milk banks and human milk fortifier that has been tested for safety.  I personally would urge the use of banks or fortifiers before formula but I do understand that there are mothers that have issues with giving their children another mother’s milk…I understand where you’re coming from.  Breastfeeding is a very personal choice.

Audrey Lee is one of those moms who is inspiring because she not only manages to face crazy challenges, she does so with a cheerful attitude and while looking fabulous (seriously, her latest maternity photos – taken while she was on bed rest, no less – are pinup worthy). Audrey has a day job as a molecular biologist and works nights as an adjunct professor at Marymount University. When she’s not busy saving the world from deadly diseases, she goes home to two daughters and an infant son – all preemies – and a wicked football rivalry with her husband, Chris. In her not-so-copious spare time she’s active in the non-profit organization Preemies Today.

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4 Responses

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your story! BF vs FF can be such a sore subject when speaking to preemie moms because…you just never know. Many times it isn’t possible and maybe kangaroo care was their “liquid gold”. We do what we can.

    • It helps when people – even people who strongly support breastfeeding over all other options – acknowledge that there are plenty of ways to bond with a baby and nourish a baby. Is breast best, well, sure, technically, but maybe not if you need your meds to keep you centered or pumping is making you so stressed out you think you might hurt yourself or it’s work to keep a roof over your head versus ft nursing or your baby is too fragile to nurse or or or… Love the way you put that just now about everyone having their own ‘liquid gold’ when it comes to it!

  2. Thank you for being honest, pumping is hard work, but totally worth it, my daughter was born at 34 weeks almost 3 years ago, I never got the right help either in the begininning and ended up pumping exclusively for her, we are now at 34 months of exclusive pumping and I’m hoping to get to 42 months.

    • I had my girl at 34 weeks, too, and pumped for a year. She eventually did get the hang of nursing and I couldn’t give it all away fast enough. Broke my heart to throw out the excess. But boy was I happy the day I retired the pump! KUDOS TO YOU for pumping like a BOSS!

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