Another big event in my life recently was a breakup, and a very personal one at that. I broke up with my pale green, Ameda Elite, hospital-grade, dual breastpump. Besides the colour none of those terms would have been familiar to me just over a year ago. And as a warning this post is going to be pretty personal, somewhat controversial and very light on pictures, for obvious reasons!
After we discovered we were pregnant Andrew and I discussed a lot of issues we wanted to cover for when raising our son, but one thing we agreed on right away was the fact that we wanted him breastfed. Now being slightly naive at this point when it came to complications or preemies, we just assumed that after he was born, a healthy, full term baby, he’d take to breastfeeding right away because…well…it’s the natural way of things right? Wrong!
I have to admit that after he was born and with all the drama surrounding his unusual entrance into the world, breastfeeding became a very low priority for me. I just wanted him to live, they were free to feed him whatever they wanted! However the nurses took matters into their own hands and within six hours of Vaughan’s birth I was handed two plastic bags containing a bizarre mixture of bottles, tubes, white nubs and what looked like funnels. What the heck was I supposed to do with this stuff?
The nurse was very helpful and showed me how to hook the whole system up to the green box she’d wheeled into my cubicle. She then helped me maneuver myself so that I was able to hold both bottles in place and then turned on the machine. Yikes!
How to describe the feeling of a hospital-grade breastpump? Well it sucks like a vaccuum and feels about as personal. This wasn’t the sweet bonding experience I had imagined, it was torture! To make matters worse the stimulation also causes contractions to start again, even though the tennant had been evicted, and I was soon doubled up in pain trying to hold all the bits in place. I had to do this for 10 minutes, every two hours. I found myself watching the clock like a hawk but stuck it out since it was very soothing to be actually doing something for my baby. All those other ‘normal’ mommies get to cuddle, change diapers, naturally breastfeed, soothe crying etc. Me? Lucky woman that I am, I got to be mechanically molested 12 times a day…yippee!!
Now let me tell you, I totally expected bottles of milk to be flowing. With all that pain I should at least see something right?? Wrong again! Nothing…10 of the most uncomfortable minutes of my life and not a drop. I quickly found a nurse to harass thinking that I’d done something wrong. Apparently this is common and it takes a few days for the milk to arrive. Awesome, so now I get to go through the whole experience for 2 hours a day and see no results…Grr! Oh well, eventually something will work! I had faith.
In the following days I met with an amazing Lactation Consultant (LC) at the hospital who supported us all the way through to Vaughan’s 6 month corrected birthday (8 months actual). Michelle was a God-send to us and was available for any questions or concerns we had about Vaughan’s eating and feeding habits. However, my first meeting with her was somewhat frightening. Like a teacher calling you for a private meeting, she cornered me during a visit in the NICU and asked to see my ‘log’. The NICU provides you with a log to keep track of your pumps and quantities so that you and the LC’s know if you’re heading in the right direction. Well, Michelle saw my log and gave me the sternest lecture of my life for going 3 hours between pumps! She laid down the law about times and told me to pump every 2 hours, even over night, for 14 days to set up my milk supply. She warned me that if I didn’t do this then my milk wouldn’t come in properly and there was no getting it back. If I was serious about wanting to breastfeed then this was my window of opportunity and I had to seize it when it came knocking and all of those other wonderful ‘opportunity’ analogies. Needless to say I pumped like a mad woman, setting alarms and leaving events early or going late so that I wouldn’t miss one of those golden time slots!
Michelle must have known what she was talking about though because my milk came in with full force. My top day I pumped just over 2L! I have to say I’m very proud of this accomlishment, silly though it may be. I average out at about 1.5L a day (over the entire year!) and was able to more than produce enough milk for our tiny boy who was drinking about 22mL every 3 hours.
The NICU at St. Jo’s was very accommodating to pumping Mommies and I was able to pump every two hours during my visits with Vaughan as well. They had two rooms set up, one in the NICU with one pump and then another in the NPCU with 3 pumps. The pump room in the NPCU became a great source of comfort to me. As I have previously stated, pregnancy and delivery eliminate any sense of modesty you might have, and thus when there were three or more of us in this one pump room, all doing our thing, we were able to rise above any awkwardness and form fast and supportive friendships that helped us get through the days. We were able to share frustrations and triumphs for our little boys and girls with other mothers who actually understood where we were coming from and not just nodding along. We could laugh or cry, whatever we needed to do, all while doing the one thing we were able to do for our tiny miracles, produce that liquid gold!
Eventually the hospital told me to stop bringing in milk and start storing it at home. They had run out of space! I felt pretty proud of that accomplishment as well.
Now as for the breastfeeding itself, we started trying with Vaughan when he was moved to the NPCU (the unit for babies who just need to gain weight and learn to feed themselves to go home). We were warned that it would take some time for him to get a good latch and to actually be able to suck. Preemies are so small that they tire out really easily and sucking involves a lot of energy. It is also a HUGE deal in the NICU to measure how much you baby eats. So before each breastfeeding attempt you have to put that tiny, naked baby on a cold hospital scale and weigh him before and after to see how many ounces he gains in between. 1 ounce is equal to about 1ml ingested. The nurses also don’t like to let you try for more than 20 mins at a time since usually at around that mark baby will start using you like a pacifier rather than actually eating. We usually snuck in a few extra minutes though in that magical pump room.
Vaughan surprised us all with his excellent latch, however he was never big on getting much to eat. I guess my letdown was too difficult and took too long. He just didn’t have the strength so his max was 18mL in the hospital and 40mL at home. This was never a full feeding for him and since we had such trouble getting him to gain weight we stuck with pumping a bottle feeding. I know this last part is a little glossed over but Vaughan’s struggles with food and weight gain deserve their own posting!
Needless to say with all of the challenges I stuck to my pump. I’d made a personal commitment when I was pregnant that I wanted to breastfeed for a year…so if pumping was the only way I could manage to keep that promise then pump I would! Over the course of Vaughan’s first year I took my pump to friends’ houses, baby showers, my parents’ houses, and yes even on my honeymoon. This pump became my most prized possession for 372 days.
Now I’m not a ‘hippy’ mommy who thinks that its breastfeeding or nothing. I understand that some people need to supplement or use formula but trust me…if I can pump than anyone can. It breaks my heart to hear people say that it was just too much work so they couldn’t keep it up, or it was uncomfortable (heck…breastfeeding isn’t a cakewalk at the start either!).
We balanced pumping through extreme colic, a wedding, a move (to name a few major events) and only gave it up when I returned to work. The medical benefits of breastmilk are plentiful for baby and mother. Even the cans of formula try to foist it on you! As I said, I’m not trying to push buttons and I understand if supply is an issue or mother just couldn’t, but if more mothers could alternate formula feeds with pumping or just hold out a little longer I think the routine settles in (at least it did for me) and the benefits to the baby greatly outweigh the discomfort to the mother.
Sure there were times when I just wanted to give up. Pumping mommies do twice the work of regular breastfeeding or formula feeding mommies! I got to spend intensely impersonal time with a mechanical devise for at least an hour a day and then I also got the joy of cleaning, sanitizing, and in Vaughan’s case, fortifying bottles every day. Two in one you might say! It was a pain in the butt but when I looked at all of those bottles in the fridge and freezer I was so proud! It is one of the greatest gifts I will ever give my son and I’m so happy I was able to stick it out. With all that being said I can’t say I shed a tear when Andrew dropped that ugly green box off at the depot!