Fighting for breastfeeding

Welcome, Carnival of Breastfeeding readers!  If you read my post I’d love for you to leave a comment.  You can find links to the other Carnival posts at the bottom of this post.

I’m beginning this composition with thumbs on an iPhone. My daughter has just fallen asleep nursing. She might continue her nap if I set her down in the crib, but for the moment I’m cherishing the weight of her little body across mine. As we mark her first birthday I’m aware that she won’t do this forever.

Starting with the machines
I had to fight for this breastfeeding relationship. When I listened the other day to the podcast on the Impact of Birthing Practice on Breastfeeding and heard the assertion that the single most important birth practice to support breastfeeding is immediate and prolonged skin-to-skin contact between mother and baby I nearly cried.  Because of severe meconium aspiration my baby had to be taken out of my arms minutes after she was born, and couldn’t be held for days.  She was not only hooked up to wires and tubes, but sedated to keep her from fighting all the interventions. No breastfeeding.

During that time it seemed like I was constantly hooked up to the breast pump. I was so productive that before long the nurses asked me to store some of my milk at home.  When Bridget was ready for something more than IV fluids she got colostrum and then milk through a tube.

As soon as she was well enough I began to nurse her. It was awkward and anxious-making, propped up on hospital pillows, under the nurse’s gaze, and being carefully judged for how much my baby nursed – a far cry from lounging in our bed at home, nursing when we felt like it, as I’d imagined our first days would go.

We were told that breastfeeding would be supported, but when the rubber hit the road, I and my partner, with our midwife’s help, had to fight for it.  Bridget fought for it too.  She rooted ferociously even when the hospital staff had told us she couldn’t yet nurse.  They were wrong.

Scrutinized and undermined
When it was time to downgrade to a level 2 NICU we looked for one that would support breastfeeding and allow our large support network to visit. A very highly regarded nearby ward basically told John that they didn’t care about breastfeeding. We went with a hospital we’d never heard of after John more than once had to explain to the doctors there that our interest in breastfeeding didn’t mean we wouldn’t reasonably cooperate with their ability to care for our child. Yes, really.  The hospitals just aren’t set up to prioritize breastfeeding.

There was no place for us to stay at the hospital, so I nursed and napped with Bridget most of the day, drinking big cups of milk that John fortified with cream, because I wasn’t permitted to eat on the ward. We’d go home to sleep in our bed only long enough to require one feeding a night by bottle, which the nurses reported Bridget didn’t particularly like.

After a very brief period of weighing the baby and weighing the diapers, the doctor wanted to give her formula to increase weight gain. It was Bridget’s dad who pushed back against that, arguing that she couldn’t be expected to exhibit a two week old’s weight gain if she’d only been nursing for two days. The doctor tried to threaten us with a possible longer hospital stay, but we stuck with breastfeeding and sure enough Bridget started gaining steadily each day.

So now my little one is 20 pounds, still made mostly of breastmilk, and has never tasted formula, in part because she’s always been furious about being offered a bottle.

Support for the choice to breastfeed
I cannot say that other moms should imitate me. I had the transportation, the time off work, and the supportive family and midwife that made my choices possible. Still, my choices left me exhausted, slow to heal from birth, and engorged.

I can say that I wish the hospitals were set up so that moms could easily breastfeed very sick newborn babies if they choose to. If I weren’t so committed to breastfeeding, it would have been easy to let my baby get lots of bottles and lots of formula. But babies who get a rough start especially need to be held, and deserve all the health benefits of breast milk.  They shouldn’t have to fight for it.

Don’t forget to go read the other Carnival of Breastfeeding posts:

Crib Keeper @ Tales from the Crib: On Not Being Discouraged
Suchada @ Mama Eve: Birth & Breastfeeding
Christina @ Massachusetts Friends of Midwives: Early Intervention Lactation Help
Jenny @ Chronicles of a nursing mom: Birth Experiences and Its Effect on Breastfeeding
Sarah @ Reproductive Rites: Fighting for Breastfeeding
Terry @ Mother Mirth: Breastfeeding: We CAN Change Our Culture
Tanya @ Motherwear Blog: The birth/breastfeeding continuum
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23 Responses to Fighting for breastfeeding

  1. Pingback: Breastfeeding: We CAN Change our Culture | MotherMirth

  2. Pingback: On not being discouraged « Tales from the Crib

  3. Jenny says:

    I am always astonished at how our system places practically no importance on what I think sick babies need most: their mothers (not to mention mother’s milk!). I don’t think any mother should be forced to go home without her baby, for any length of time. I have been blessed in that I’ve never been separated from my newborns, but I know it must be heartbreaking, especially for a mom so committed to breastfeeding. I’m glad things worked out for you–it’s amazing that after all you went through she’s never tasted formula!

  4. Pingback: Carnival of Breastfeeding: The long, wide shadow of a bad birth - Mama Bear

  5. Wow, Sarah, what an amazing story. I have a friend whose baby was in the NICU and went through a similar fight to breastfeed. I will definitely share this with her. I feel for you mamas who persevere though so many obstacles to develop the relationship you want to have with your little ones. Very inspirational.

  6. lesliedf says:

    My childbirth educator told me to be the squeaky wheel in the hospital. Parents often really have to fight for what they believe in. You and your husband worked so hard for yourself and your baby. Good for you!! Hearing your story makes me so sad, I just can’t understand why hospitals aren’t better at birth and caring for sick babies. Maybe if they saw breastfeeding as a life saving procedure, then they would allow for it and even encourage it. It seems though that medicine is often arrogant enough to assume that “natural” and time tested methods of healing do not have their place in the modern world.

    • Your childbirth educator gave you great advice! It’s also really hard advice to follow. When my daughter’s life lay in the NICU doctor’s hands I just wanted them to do whatever they must to get her heart and lungs working properly. As she got better and we drifted out of their domain of expertise (critical medical care) I had to learn to step forward and claim my own expertise as her mother. It helped me hugely to have a partner on my side, and I think a doula could also serve as a major support in being “sqeaky.”

      • lesliedf says:

        You are totally right – when in critical care I’m sure everyone is simply focused on making sure that baby survives – and that is the wrong time to be asserting oneself. Thanks for clarifying that.

  7. Hi Leslie, I didn’t mean to be correcting what you said at all. We were also quite involved when Bridget’s condition was critical. What I meant to say is that in a hospital it becomes very easy to slip into seeing the doctors as the authority figures (because sometimes they are – hopefully, that’s why you’re there) and to lose sight of your own authority.

    Thank you for this conversation. Among other things it has shown me that I need to fix the commenting set-up on this blog because it doesn’t seem to allow a thread longer than three comments!

  8. Pingback: Early Intervention Lactation Help « Massachusetts Friends of Midwives Blog

  9. Wow, amazing job! That sounds like hard work! My little guy passed a ton of meconium, too, but (homebirth) my midwives didn’t use deep suction (which sometimes causes more problems than it fixes). I’m always grateful that I didn’t have a hospital birth, because I know how doctors freak out at meconium. (And, PS, mama–I remember you a little from Wellesley–I was class of ’97 there, last name Kastros back then.)

    • I actually had a homebirth, too! My midwives never freaked out, but they did get very serious when during labor Bridget’s heart rate elevated and stayed up. When my homebirth midwife told me to hand over my minutes-old baby for an ambulance ride to the hospital, I really trusted that the situation was serious. Geeze, I’ve been meaning to post the full birth story, and just keep not getting to it. Really, should do that . . .

      I am trying to remember you! Did we do any classes or activities together?

      • No, I think I just remember you from around campus/the dorms/public bulletin. . . wow, that was a long time ago. 🙂

        Let me know if you ever want to get together–I live in the South End and teach at BU.

  10. Jenny says:

    Moms of NICU babies have it especially more difficult. My sister had to fight a similar fight with a pedia who was more “scientific” and told us that her preemie could choke on colostrum. All the more reason that a specific subject on breastfeeding should be included in the medical school curriculum – especially for those subspecializing in neonatology!

  11. Reading you story makes my heart hurt, as I know it all too well. It’s an impossible situation for a mother to be in – needing desperately to trust her child’s medical staff, but knowing too that she is what her baby needs most. And it’s at a time when parents have so little reserve left after a tough birth.

    The good news is that there is lots of good research – but the changes needed physically and institutionally in NICUs and hospitals are going to take a long, long time. Meanwhile, it’s parents like you who are going to make the changes happen on the ground – one ped and nurse at a time.

  12. Niki says:

    Oh wow. I wish I had known, because A, B and I went through very similar struggles.

  13. I can’t even imagine the experience of having a baby in the NICU, knowing that your milk is literally medicine for your little one and having to work twice as hard to get it into your tiny baby. Kudos to you for all of your hard work, mama.

  14. Pingback: Claiming your own authority | Reproductive Rites

  15. ingrid says:

    I am so glad that you were able to successfully BF! Reading your story I wonder if I got some shady advice while my dd was in at childrens hospital. There were pumping rooms and juice and fruit available with containers and storage, even music and magazine for pumping moms! But the nurses and LCs always said that because BFing is harder to do than drinking from a bottle my little one who has cerebral palsy would be lucky to be able to drink from a bottle instead of a tube…turns out that I never got much milk anyway (I was sick too and denied a pump at my hospital) and she drank mostly formula with some BM donated from some amazing mamas!

  16. Pingback: Breastfeeding & Birth

  17. Pingback: Gratitude for extended breastfeeding | Reproductive Rites

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