Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Triumphant Tuesday: Breastfeeding Despite Separation

One of the beauties of breastfeeding is that, for its optimum functioning, it requires mother and baby to be in frequent close proximity. This has the knock-on effect of strengthening the maternal-infant bond. Everyone's a winner.

But what if mother and baby are separated for prolonged periods? A lot of moms at this point, switch to formula, passing the feeding duties to someone else. Whilst this offers short-term convenience, it has all the long-term consequences associated with formula use. The following story illustrates that separation and formula-use are not compulsory bedfellows. Separation can occur for many reasons. Sometimes the baby is ill and needs medical treatment; and sometimes the mother is ill. This mom experienced both scenarios yet carried on breastfeeding.

“Breastfeeding has become such a hot button issue in our culture that I have begun to hate all references to breastfeeding challenges. To say you had a breastfeeding challenge is the American mother’s 'Get Out of Jail Free' card. No one would dare judge you for not breastfeeding if you’ve had a challenge.

If more articles and stories were written about women who faced obstacles to breastfeeding and overcame them, they could benefit women all over the country. Instead, we have a population trained (or brainwashed if you prefer) to cut and run at the first sign of difficulty. It is often too late to correct misinformation once a woman has already had a baby because she will see it as criticism. The occasional mom will actually learn from her mistakes and not repeat them with her next child, but that’s not the norm. Since becoming a mother myself, I have heard so many different “breastfeeding didn’t work for me” stories that I could write a book. I feel armed to counter their claims because I too faced some unusual breastfeeding speed bumps.

The honeymoon phase cut short

My daughter Kathleen was born after a twenty-four hour labor and two more of pushing. I breastfed her for the first time before she was taken to be checked in the nursery. That night was one I will never forget. I snuggled next to my little angel the whole time, and she nursed repeatedly. I barely slept because I was so excited to finally be a mother. In the morning, a nurse came to take her back to the nursery to be seen by her pediatrician.

About an hour later, the doctor came in to tell us that Kathleen’s white count was too high. Basically, this meant that there was an increase in disease-fighting cells (leukocytes) circulating in my baby's blood. She had been sent to the NICU for antibiotics and the nurse’s there would call me when we could come and see her.

Until that moment I first visited my daughter in the NICU, I had no idea that IV’s could be placed in someone’s head. Kathleen had one lodged in her scalp; they even had to shave off some of her hair. Before her stint in intensive care was over, the IV would infiltrate three different times. Kathleen left the hospital with only the hair on the back of her head, but that was the least of our concerns.

The doctor’s orders were for me to be allowed in to nurse the baby in the NICU whenever necessary. They gave me a rocking chair and a pillow in a small storage room off of the main unit. Imagine learning to breastfeed on a hard chair in a tiny room, with the pressure of knowing that if you weren’t finished in a certain amount of time, they would come and get the baby.


Kathleen’s white count still wasn’t normal that Sunday, but my insurance was kicking me out. The hospital told me that I could stay until midnight. I had already discussed breastfeeding with the NICU nurses. My plan was to come back every two to three hours round the clock. My partner and my mother convinced me to skip one feeding in the middle of the night so that I could sleep, since we would have to drive to and from the hospital every time. If I had it to do again, I would probably have spent the night on the couch in the waiting room. The nurses offered to give Kathleen “gavage feeding” for that one time a night, which meant sticking a tube down her throat and into her stomach to deliver formula. The idea was to avoid nipple confusion, but I asked them to give her the formula in a bottle. After all of the needles and suffering she was already dealing with, I didn’t want to add to it with another medical procedure.

I was pumping like a fiend in the hospital. The nurses brought the big, scary double pump to me, and since I wanted her to have nothing but breastmilk, I pumped every 2-3 hours, just like they instructed me to.

At ten o’clock that Sunday night, my partner loaded my things into the car while I held and nursed our daughter. At five minutes until midnight, we buzzed Kathleen’s nurse to come and get her. That was the most horrible feeling I had ever experienced. Andy and I walked out of the room after the nurse, who was pushing our baby in her isolette. She turned right towards the NICU, and we turned left towards our car. Unlike every TV show and movie I had ever seen, no one came to wheel me out. There was no fanfare or Hallmark moment. It was like my part was over, and I had no more value. I still cannot believe that we had to drive home without our daughter, but we did. I pumped and cried myself to sleep so that I could be up at six to go back and nurse her.

The next few days were a blur. My partner drove me to and from the hospital all of the next day. The nurses were nice; they could call me if Kathleen was crying before her scheduled feeding so that we could rush over there. A few times, one of them was even holding her while they did paperwork so that she wouldn’t cry. Every night, we would get home from nursing the baby at around midnight. I would sit on the couch to pump before bed. Nothing came out. Every time I went in to nurse, they would ask me if my milk had come in. It hadn't.

Formula bullying

It wasn’t all bearable, though. On the first day of our separation, a nurse came into the little room with a bottle of formula in her hand. She told me that the doctor wanted me to give it to Kathleen before I nursed her. When I asked why, she said that the baby was jaundiced and the formula would help. Luckily for me, my mom was in the next room working. I ran out nearly crying and told her what was happening. She agreed that my milk wouldn’t come in well if the baby was already full of formula at every feeding. She told me to only offer the bottle after nursing, which I did. Kathleen didn’t even want a sip.

They also introduced the pacifier to my baby while she was there, but I didn’t complain as they were using it to soothe her when I wasn’t there to comfort her. By the next evening, I was thoroughly depressed. I was lying on my parents’ couch, waiting until it was time to go back to my baby. She was days old, and I had never changed her diaper or bathed her; she had nurses to do that for her. I think that in that moment, my strong commitment to breastfeeding was forged. I realized that if I didn’t nurse my child and provide her with a form of nourishment that only I could give, then I wasn’t really crucial to her survival. Other people could change her, hold her, rock her, and give her a bottle. I was dispensable.

Since then, I have learned even more about the importance of breastfeeding for my children’s health (both mental and physical) and my own health, but at that instant, all I thought was that this was something no one else could do for her.

When my baby eventually was allowed to come home I never gave her another bottle. She was not interested in the pacifier anymore once she was with me. Despite my challenges, I managed to exclusively breastfeed (not counting the three bottles of formula she drank in the hospital) her until she was twenty-two months old, and I was pregnant with her little brother.

Baby #2 is born

To our immense relief, Alexander was totally healthy at birth. After only a four hour labor, I began pushing. That went on for two and a half hours, and his head never engaged in my pelvis. He was “sunny-side up” as the doctor called it, and he ended up being born via a c-section. I nursed him for the first time about an hour after his birth, and we never experienced any problems. My breastfeeding challenges with my son didn’t begin until his third month.

Surgery #1

I had been diagnosed with gallstones during my pregnancy. I suffered from about nine “attacks” while I was pregnant, but managed to avoid surgery. When Alexander was three months old, I finally went to a surgeon because the problem was persisting. She told me that I would have to have laparoscopic surgery to remove my gallbladder. I immediately began researching anesthesia and breastfeeding. I used an online help form to talk to a Le Leche League expert. She sent me several articles to read. I also called the lactation consultant at the hospital to ask her advice. She was very reassuring that I would be able to nurse as soon as I wanted after the surgery.

I breastfed Alexander minutes before being wheeled away to the OR. The anesthesiologist came in to speak with me at that moment and said that he’d make sure to use meds that were safe for the baby. Alexander didn’t even miss a feeding.

Surgery #2

When he was nine months old, I found out that I would need outpatient surgery again. This time it was to drain an ovarian cyst that had developed during my pregnancy. I was nervous about the prospect of another operation, but I was confident that breastfeeding wouldn’t present any challenges. I woke up in the recovery room to a nurse who informed me that the doctor had had to make a large incision, and that I would have to stay overnight.

Malicious Nurse

I immediately thought of my baby and how I was going to nurse him. After finding out that I'd had to have my entire ovary removed, I had to deal with an idiot of a nurse who yelled at me for breastfeeding a nine month old! She shouted at me, as I cried over the loss of my ovary, in front of my parents, my three year old daughter, and my husband. The nurse seemed to sense that she was facing a resentful audience because she muttered something about the baby being able to spend the night and left. He did spend that night with me in my hospital bed.

I am happy to say that (so far) everything has gone smoothly with nursing my third baby, who is now seventeen months old. She latched on an hour after another c-section, and has been going strong ever since. I use my stories of the breastfeeding challenges I have faced not to gloat over my success, but to encourage other mothers to overcome whatever may be trying to prevent them from successfully breastfeeding their own babies. I believe that we have to stop politely nodding when a new mom says she couldn’t nurse because she had a c-section or a sick baby or sore nipples. I’ve had all three, and my children have all managed to breastfeed well into toddlerhood.

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