Winnie was born at 29 weeks, weighing just 1090 grams
I had always planned to breastfeed if I could. For many years before I fell pregnant, this was part of my imagined future with my baby. But when I was admitted to hospital with pre-eclampsia at 27 weeks, and told that the little girl inside me would soon have to come out, my determination to provide the milk she would need to do her growing on the outside increased ten-fold.
I spent 12 days in hospital before Winnie was finally delivered. During that time I sat in bed, diligently reading leaflets brought by midwives on breastfeeding, expressing, breast pumps and the life-giving properties of breast milk for premature babies. But of course none of this prepared me for the day of my daughter’s birth. It seemed that in only an instant, she was gone from my tummy, taken three floors up to intensive care, and I was lying in the recovery room while I, my husband, and the midwife fumbled to extract a few drops of milk from my sore and shaky body.
Expressing breast milk by hand is an art, and when those few, golden drops of colostrum finally appeared it really did seem like magic. More than anything, it made me feel like I had really had a baby. My husband carried those precious drops in a tiny syringe up three floors, and the excited and appreciative NICU nurses carefully fed it to my tiny girl, weighing barely a kilogram, through a tube that went via her mouth to her belly. I fed my little Winnikins before I even met her.
For the next few months, the breast pump became my constant companion. At the hospital I was lucky that I could express next to Winnie’s bed, watching and talking to her while I produced increasing amounts of milk. At home I set myself up on the couch, with a cup of tea and a biscuit ready for those middle of the night sessions, and meticulously recorded every minute and millilitre of milk expressed.
It is no exaggeration to say that, in those early days and weeks of life with a premmie, expressing breast milk was part of what kept me sane. I could only hold Winnie for a few hours a day. For the rest of the time, expressing milk was one of the very few things I could do for her. When I was discharged from hospital and had to go home without her, and when I woke in the night to silence instead of her crying, expressing was the thing that made me feel like I was still a mum.
When the time finally arrived to try breastfeeding for real, I had spent so many weeks attached to a breast pump I found it hard to imagine it really could work. And yet amazingly, wonderfully, this tiny little mouth, on my tiny little baby, knew what to do. Yet despite being an amazing milestone on the premmie journey, starting to breastfeed was stressful, and I worried about whether I was doing it right. Was I expecting too much to want Winnie to breastfeed exclusively? Was I denying her the opportunity to learn to suck by not using bottles? Should I try to feed her everyday? How many times a day? Would the incredible effort of trying to breastfeed sap the essential energy she still needed for growing? On all of these questions (and many more) I so desperately wanted to do the right thing, and yet I was receiving constant and conflicting advice from all angles.
Thankfully, quite early on in the journey, I was connected with a very supportive, encouraging and knowledgeable lactation consultant, who made me feel like it would all be ok. And so I decided that I would follow whatever advice she gave me, and smile and nod at (but ignore) anything else. This turned out to be the best decision I could have made. Together we planned a breastfeeding routine that would help Winnie to gradually learn to feed without tiring her little body out too much. We also decided to try a nipple shield, to make it easier for her to latch on and draw out the milk she needed. It felt like a lifetime, but actually it was only a few weeks later that I finally got to take Winnie home, fully breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding a premature or sick baby means a lot of hard work and overcoming some extra hurdles and challenges. For that, Mums need that extra bit of help and support. I continued to express for months after Winnie came home, in order to keep my milk supply up while Winnie had time to catch up. We also used the nipple shield until Winnie self-weaned, about a year after she was born. It was a nuisance sometimes, but a tiny price to pay.
Breastfeeding also requires a good measure of luck. There are plenty of women who work much harder than I did but, for various reasons, do not, or cannot, continue. These women also need support, and reassurance that they have done the very best for their child whatever decision they have made.
Milky Mums is a community organisation established to provide support to Mums who are breastfeeding or expressing for premature and seriously ill babies in Australian neonatal intensive care units (NICUs). Learn more about our work at www.milkymums.org.au