Lessons Learned in Feeding My NICU Baby

NICU feeding

I was clueless about newborn care when I had my daughter. In my defense, I thought I had 15 more weeks to educate myself on such things as diapering, sleeping, and that hot topic of feeding. I can remember shortly after CG was born a lactation consultant came around with my hospital-grade pump and launched in to the operation and cleaning instructions like I was actually supposed to understand anything she was telling me. I mean, I was only 24-weeks pregnant – are you sure my body will make milk?! I knew that nursing was not an option because CG was intubated (a tube down her throat to help her breathe), and also because she was so young that her eyes were still fused together and she certainly hadn’t mastered the fine art of the suck-swallow-breathe reflex (who knew that was even a thing?!?)

As it turns out, no matter when you have a baby, your body kicks in to gear as a milk factory. I rented the hospital-grade-pump because it is truly so much more powerful than the standard back-pack pumps that I got later with my son. When your baby is not with you all the time and you don’t have a baby latching on, it can be confusing for your poor boobs to figure out what in the world is happening. I pictured my body going through the confusion: You weren’t supposed to have this baby, but you did. Now there’s no baby here, yet you keep telling us to make milk. A little help, here?

The long and the short of my pumping tale is this: I had done literally NO research on nursing. None. I was an emotional tornado because I didn’t know if my daughter would live, and if she did how severe any trauma or long-term care would be, so researching it right then was just beyond my capacity. I am sure that if I had listened more closely to the NICU nursing staff, or if I had spent a lot of time reading about the subject I could have kept up my milk flow. But the truth is, when it’s 2 a.m. and there’s not actually a baby there crying, and  you’ve spent the whole day at the hospital where emotions are flying from a ballet pace to a Riverdance pace every couple of hours, depending on what trauma or tests or medicine change is occurring, it’s easy to hit the snooze button and groggily decide, “I’ll pump later.” Because I was adopted my mom didn’t nurse so she couldn’t help me, and I didn’t have single close friend who’d experienced childbirth yet. I had limited resources on boobies-for-milk, you might say. As it went, though, my milk supply slowly started to wane and soon I would pump for 30 minutes and get 3 cc’s of milk. I was told to take Fenugreek, to drink a beer, and to pump more often. It just wasn’t working.

There was a vast amount of pressure on me to keep pumping by the NICU staff, but it seemed like the more pressure they put on me the less milk I produced. Finally, after 10 weeks of pumping, I chose to stop. I had enough milk stored to give CG for a few more weeks, and then to give her formula. I felt judged and that “everyone” thought I was a bad mom. I felt that I was disappointing CG’s nurses and doctors, and most importantly that I wasn’t giving her what she needed. Ultimately, though, I was finding myself crying more over the pressure to produce, and being seemingly unable to do so, than anything that was happening with my child.

If I could go back and “do it all over again” (thank heavens that’s not an option!), armed with the knowledge I now have about nursing and pumping, here is what I would change:

  • I would have more self-discipline about pumping. It’s all about supply and demand, ladies. I would have set an alarm and not allowed myself to hit snooze.
  • I would have had a better attitude. I chose to let pumping annoy and frustrate me because I felt like it took away what little time I had with CG, but letting that affect the frequency and length with which I pumped certainly didn’t do anyone any favors.
  • I would have drunk more water. Simple, huh? I didn’t drink enough water, I now realize.
  • I would have spoken up more often to bring the pump into our “room” in the NICU and pumped while I was sitting next to my baby. Too often I would feel guilty about adding one more thing to our awesome nurse’s list of things to do, but looking back I should have done it more.
  • I would have been kinder to myself if/when it didn’t work out.

I’m not an expert on nursing or feeding, and I don’t have all the answers, but I do know this: In the grand scheme of things it is more important to me that my daughter knows Jesus, knows I love her more than she can imagine, feels secure, and understands that being beautiful means being kind. I highly doubt she is going to sit around and mull over whether she was breast or bottle-fed and for how long. Mamas, my advice is to do your best. Educate yourself (both with experts and friends who have nursed and formula fed) on the pros and cons of various feeding methods and then make a decision based upon your circumstances. Never let others make you feel less-than if you bottle/formula feed, or over-the-top if you nurse until your baby is one. It is your life, your family, and your child.

Mamas with a baby in the NICU – be kinder to yourself than I was. Your journey is not an easy one, and truthfully, it doesn’t look the same as those who have “normal” births and take their cooing baby home 2 days later, with little more to worry about than personal exhaustion. I’m not saying that having a healthy newborn isn’t a challenge in and of itself, I’m just encouraging you to not allow opinions from mamas who haven’t experienced Life in the NICU to make you feel bad. Take one day at a time and just do your best, however that looks.

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One Response to Lessons Learned in Feeding My NICU Baby

  1. Katie October 27, 2013 at 10:00 pm #

    Thank you for sharing, Maggie. No one ever expects to be in this situation but these are great tips for anyone who finds themselves suddenly there!