Earthy and Expecting: Breast milk is preemie medicine, or, The Breast-feeding Post

Rejected titles for this post include, but are not limited to, “Staying abreast of your preemie’s feedings,” “Getting something on your chest,” and something playing off the musicality of “latch” and “leche,” but I didn’t quite get it worked out.

This is The Breast-feeding Post! And I played with pithy titles not to trivialize or diminish breast-feeding whatsoever. I just want to keep this light because, for reasons that utterly elude me, and despite a reinvigorated and justifiable campaign to get babies back to the breast, breast-feeding is a bit of a controversial topic.

I could spout off here about how we don’t really own our bodies, how maybe if society didn’t view breasts as sex objects, we could more easily accept them as a means for nourishing our children, wherever and however often we choose. But I won’t. I’ll save that for the first jerk person who suggests I take my son to a public restroom to feed him.

Gross. Who wants to eat in the bathroom? Not you, not me and not Jax. (Don’t worry, I’ll keep it classy with my co-worker’s tips for nursing outside the home.)

Anyway, besides the obvious “it’s my body and I’ll milk if I want to” justification, there is one other reason why the taboo against breast-feeding is ridiculous: breastfeeding is so, so good for babies.

Breast milk is easily digested by infants, contains appropriate nutrient, vitamin and mineral levels, and is packed with antibodies that help build babies’ immune systems. Nursing promotes bonding between mom and baby, and more studies than I can link to here report statistics about the higher IQ scores and developmental achievements of children who were breast-fed. There are major benefits for mamas, too, like faster baby weight loss and even decreased risks of certain cancers.

However, there is no “should” in this post. Breast-feeding is not for everyone, and formulas approved by pediatricians have sustained healthy babies for a century. Some babies can’t even tolerate breast milk. And despite laws that say our workplaces have to provide a place for women to use supply-sustaining breast pumps once they return to work, let’s face it: not all women are as lucky as I am to have a windowless conference room with a lock and its own heater.

And this post is about my experience. I know that’s up close and personal, but it has to be because I can’t and won’t speak for other women, only for myself.

I’ve recounted the trauma of delivering Jax nearly three months early, the stress of the ups and downs, the veritable wonderland of new terrain that is the NICU and all its strange and amazing technology. I’ve even mentioned feeling helpless, like there was nothing I could do to help my baby…

Providing breast milk is the most important thing you can do to help your preemie. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that while “breast is best” for most babies, it’s actually medicine for preemies. One of Jax’s doctors told me that my breast milk is as important to Jax as any equipment in the NICU. Take all those breast milk benefits I listed above and add to them a reduced risk of infection, faster weight gain and immunity buildup and even increased cognitive development. Moms who are physically able to pump breast milk are strongly encouraged to do so within hours of delivering.

Herein lies one of the greatest challenges, besides managing fears about my tiny baby, that being a NICU mother has presented to me.

Not nearly as cute as Jax, but Medela is the best brand of breast pump on the market, and this travel version with accessories is on my wish list.

To be blunt, feeding a pump every three hours is infinitely less rewarding than feeding a baby. There is no emotional connection to a pump, even when you tape a picture of your baby to it (been there, done that). Add a healthy dose of stress and you have major obstacles to building and sustaining a milk supply.

But we still try. There are a few moms I see in the NICU on a regular basis, and who I know are facing the same challenges I am. Some of them have begun nursing; some haven’t. We file in and unpack our little two-ounce bottles, carefully labeled with our babies’ names and the date and time they were “filled.”

Sometimes I feel like that person on the dramatic medical sitcom, racing through the hospital with a cooler containing a life-saving liver or kidney.

The pressure is by no means off when your preemie is medically cleared to begin breast-feeding. You still have to pump to maintain your supply, and now you’re pumping on your baby’s precise, hospital-regimented feeding schedule (Jax dines on the ones, fours, sevens, and tens; I do my very best, but 4 a.m. without my baby’s smile or smell just isn’t happening.). Even when you get to the NICU to breast-feed, which I do twice a day now, you still have to pump afterward to express whatever baby didn’t consume, so your body will produce more.

Breast milk is very much a supply-and-demand operation.

And the breast-feeding itself isn’t easy for preemies. Latching on is difficult because their suck reflexes aren’t fully developed yet, and as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, preemies have trouble breathing while also sucking/swallowing. They tend to switch off in separate, feverish bursts, resting in between. They can become quickly exhausted and often need each nursing session to be supplemented afterward by bottle or tube.

I present these challenges not to scare anyone off breast-feeding. Just the opposite is true. The best things in life might be free (like breast milk vs. formula), but they’re also often hard-won. In the midst of all things NICU over which I have no control, I have no second thoughts about this one thing that is proven to help.

Breast-feeding and pumping are difficult but incredibly rewarding. Emotionally, pumping has kept me focused on progress. Physically, it’s helped me attune to what feeding a newborn is going to be like once Jax comes home.

And spiritually, it’s facilitated a strong connection with a baby I birthed more than two months ago, but have yet to tuck into his bassinett at night, in a little sleeper I purchased, with the soft night light and gentle music-playing mobile I picked out.

In a very real and earthy sense, breast-feeding has made me a mother.

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  1. January 14, 2013

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