Breastfeeding can be a touchy subject for many mothers. Some women are physically unable, some make the choice not to. Some women, like me, thought that it would come easy. That my child would just look at me, turn his little face, find his shockingly larger than I ever realized possible target and go to town. I never thought that breastfeeding would provide healing from a very traumatic entrance into motherhood.
I, like many women, dreamt about becoming a mother. I romanticized the notion for years. I used to envision myself, beautifully glistening from the sweat of childbirth, with my husband holding my hand as they brought our brand new baby over to me. It would be a beautiful moment with tears of utter joy. This new life, that I had such a huge hand in making, would bond with me immediately, latch to the breast and know exactly what to do. And then, with the help of all those extra calories, my loyal body would snap back into tip top shape. When we finally became pregnant, the research began. I read books about my body changing, how it would nurture and care for this little life inside me. I read about breastfeeding, the dos and don’ts, positioning and angling.
My son’s entry into the world was the complete opposite of my dreams. I went into labor early, 15 weeks too soon, and he was delivered by c section. I was asleep. Neither my husband nor I saw our baby boy as he was rushed to the NICU. I woke up in recovery, hoping it was just a bad dream. He was alive. He weighed 2.1 lbs. and he was mine. All of the dreams that I thought were important to me shattered. I was a mother of a micro-preemie and this body that was supposed to nurture and protect him, had failed both of us.
About 3 hours after my c section, a nurse asked about breastfeeding. I remember adamantly saying, YES! This was one experience that wouldn’t be taken from me. My body would have to do this for me. It owed me. I had no idea the struggles many preemie moms face. I didn’t realized that this one word, this one goal of mine, would keep me tethered to a pump for nearly 17 weeks before my baby was finally strong enough to hold a latch. I just wanted to do something, anything to help him thrive. Something that would make me feel like a mother when nurses, doctors and machines kept my baby alive.
Thankfully, I was an A+ milk maker. I learned from our incredible nurses that my milk was made specifically for my baby’s needs. It was a preemie version, liquid gold. How awesome that this body was finally doing something it was supposed to. It made me hate it just a little less.
Owen spent 75 days in the NICU. He started to find his way around the breast about three weeks before we were discharged. It was an exciting and frustrating experience. He would fall asleep, too tired to exert the effort needed to bring my milk down. So, I would pump before he latched, when he was able to latch, and he would be flooded by my overproduction. Plan C was bottling. Much to my dismay, he began to find the bottle much easier. I felt like I could do nothing right. We brought him home on the bottle and I tried nursing as often as possible.
I’ve always been a bit stubborn and I was still grieving deeply from the birth experience and pregnancy that I had missed. I never had a huge round belly. I wasn’t pregnant for my baby shower. I didn’t hear his first cry. I didn’t see my baby for more than 2 minutes for the first 12 hours of his life. I didn’t hold him for a week. This wasn’t something that I was going to give up on. I persevered. Owen ate every 3 hours and I would attempt to breastfeed, supplement with bottle of pumped milk, then I would pump. Every 3 hours, on repeat. Sometimes he did well. Other times, we would both end up in tears. There were no words for how defeated it can feel when you can’t provide a basic need for your child. And I had felt that way so very often those first 4 months.
After six weeks home, he did it. Six long weeks of never sleeping because I nursed/bottled/pumped for every night feeding. Six long weeks after walking out those NICU doors with very little encouragement from the lactation support. He latched and didn’t fall asleep. He didn’t pull away. He nursed. It is one of the greatest achievements of my life. He never looked back. My little guy nursed for the next 10 months of his life before we became pregnant with my daughter and he self-weaned.
My failure of a body has attempted to redeem itself. I have had two pregnancies after my son, both have been full term. I have gone on to have that perfect moment of breastfeeding shortly after delivery. I’ve been blessed with amazing doctors who let me hold my baby during my c section, even for just a couple seconds. They don’t realize how much that means. My daughter and our newest son have both been breastfeeding champs. And I’ve very blessed that my preemie was able to eventually latch. Many preemie and full term moms don’t get to experience that, despite lactation cookies, vitamins, pumping, persistence, and tears. My heart breaks for them. That is a grieving process of its own.
Breastfeeding my children has been frustrating, painful, blissful and satisfying, all at the same time. I may never know what it feels like to deliver a baby naturally. I won’t have the anticipation of a long labor or a quick recovery. I have scars across my belly that have been reopened twice to bring three beautiful babies into this world. Breastfeeding was one dream that I didn’t have to sacrifice. It’s a bonding experience like none other and I’m grateful every day that I’ve had the privilege to do it.
Heather is a stay-at-home-mom of three, as well as the director of Graham’s Foundation’s Preemie Parent Mentor program. Before becoming a mother, Heather used her Communications degree as an Admissions Recruiter with Salus University.
If you’re a parent or grandparent of a preemie who’d like to connect with a mom, dad, or grandparent who’s been where you are now you can find out more about the Parent Mentor program by emailing concierge @ grahamsfoundation dot org.