Mum-of-four Madeleine shares the realities of breastfeeding a premature baby. Her last two babies were both born seven weeks early.
I always wanted to breastfeed. I fed my first two sons and I loved it. But it wasn’t until my 3rd and 4th sons were born early, that I really understood how important breast milk can be.
Both boys were born prematurely at 33 and 34 weeks. It was explained to us how vital it is for premature babies to have breast milk.For many reasons, but one in particular, in that breastfed premature babies would have a lower risk of NEC, a serious intestinal disease.
Breast milk also magically gives a baby exactly what it needs at that exact gestation and continues to change with the baby - quite incredible. In becoming aware of this, I now more than ever wanted to feed my babies.
When your baby arrives early into the world, there is so much to become accustomed to. Very little is similar to a term baby. One of the toughest things is you strangely find yourself on the ward, alone. No baby beside you. No baby in your arms feeding. No cues to watch or noises to hear. Your baby is in the NICU, and he is there until he can breathe and feed independently.
Therefore, feeding your baby becomes your number one priority. It gives you focus and purpose. While nurses and doctors care for your baby 24 hours a day, your role as a mother becomes so blurred, and even as a mom already, your confidence takes a nosedive, not knowing what to do.
So you pump. You pump and pump and pump. Round the clock, making that magic milk that you know is what your baby needs. His initial feeds were by syringe of colostrum, then onto NG tube of breastmilk and eventually onto bottle. This is a series of one step forward and two steps back.
Babies born prior to 34 weeks have not learnt to suck, they do this in utero after 33 weeks. So they must learn among an abundance of other things, how to suck. When I am discharged, it is home to pump, wash, sterilise, pump, wash sterilise. Daily visits delivering milk and trying to catch those small windows when your tiny baby is awake so you can hold them, hold the tube (or bottle) to feed and eventually put them to the breast.
Premature babies have little energy hence why it is quite a task for them to feed at the breast. With the bottle, the milk comes fast and with little effort. They must work at the breast and they tire easily. Gaining weight is paramount.
For my 3rd son it just never happened. He never latched, never fed from me and even though I pumped endlessly for months, it broke my heart that I couldn’t feed him myself.
With other small children at home, the pumping was just too much, and that is where the breastfeeding journey ended for us. So when my 4th was born early and knowing how important the milk was, and also having been down that preemie road before, I was determined.
We are still getting there. We are at home, he is 9 weeks now, 3 weeks post due date, and we are pumping around the clock. He latches well and we have two exclusive feeds at the breast each day. He is getting stronger and hopefully, we will be fully transitioned over to the breast soon. But as is the case with premature babies, patience is key because it is all at their pace.
To breastfeed was always my wish, but like a lot of people, it is not always a straight forward journey. Pumping for a preemie while having children at home has been, without a shadow of a doubt, the greatest challenge I have ever faced.
I love that I can, fortunately, do this for him but it is most definitely a love-hate relationship with the breast pump. It sits haunting me by my bedside waiting to attack every 3-4 hours. I dread it. A demand so physical when you’re already worn out is testing. But it is the one way I know and knew in the earlier days, that I could provide for my baby, at a time when I couldn’t provide much else. Perspective tells me thank goodness I can.
Support is key - your partner, your family, your neighbours, your friends, the nurses, the doctors ... anyone and everyone that can help. But as is always the best advice when breastfeeding, it is one day at a time.
And here we are so far. 63 days along and hoping Day 64 will go well tomorrow.
Madeleine has shared her journey as a highlight on her Instagram page. She has chronicled every step of the pumping journey for baby Rowan. You can watch it here.