My pregnancy was pretty uneventful. I gained weight appropriately. I craved the right amount of cheese and carbs. Every visit the doctor sent me away telling me “everything looks great”. So when my water decided to break at just 36 weeks, it was quite unexpected!
For me, I work in women’s health care so I remained as calm as I could and put my trust in my doctors that I have carefully chosen to get me and my baby through this safely. There was some urgency to deliver within a certain timeframe to avoid risk of infection. And there was also the chance that I could have to have a C-section if my baby wasn’t as ready as my amniotic sac was. But after just 12 hours of labor, complete with some opening of my cervix, Pitocin and an Epidural (!), I delivered what seemed to be a healthy baby girl weighing 5lbs 12 ounces!
Not to long after, shit got real. Immediately the nurses noted how important body heat was for this little one and that her blood sugar was a little low. The baby wouldn’t latch. Instead she was shivering and crying and I was helpless. The nurses quickly gave up on attempts to breastfeed her at that moment as this baby needed food stat! My baby received her first dose of man-made formula within 30 minutes of her birth.
A few hours later we were transferred into our post-natal room with baby. Everything was quite a blur. Besides the hectic chaos happening with bringing a new baby into the world and trying to rush food into her little body, this was 2016 and the presidential elections was happening at that very moment. The world was also at chaos.
The nurse was checking our little one’s blood sugar approx. every hour. They would prick her toe and try to squeeze as much blood as they can. Sometime the nurse would get some, sometimes she wouldn’t. But the readings that did come back, showed the levels were only getting worse and about 2:30am they decided to transfer my baby to the NICU to monitor her blood sugar levels.
We were going to the NICU. Even for parents with a seemingly healthy, almost to term baby, this “prized trip” is very scary. I was a little more calm than my husband. Again, I work in health care and knew that her odds of making it out of the NICU as a perfect baby were very good. And I knew to trust the doctors that I had carefully selected.
My husband was terrified. He immediately thought all the bad thoughts you think of when they tell you your baby is going to the NICU. And I was still a little helpless and medicated so my husband had to escort our 12-hour old baby to the NICU.
Immediately they hook your baby up to machines that make all sorts of noises and beeps that make YOUR heart race. They also discovered that she wasn’t really taking the food by bottle and that was causing her levels to continue to drop. Fortunately the NICU nurses are way better at trying to feed a baby than a new, exhausted, doped up mom. Our little girl was taking down about 10-15 ml of delicious man-made formula provided by Abbott Laboratories, every 2-3 hours. But any mom out there knows this is not enough food to sustain a newborn! Why was my baby not eating! All my brothers and sisters had plump little food monster babies. My ethnic background alone (Italian) suggests that girl should like herself some food! But somehow I was dealing with a tiny baby with no interest in eating. And she would not be released until she showed some promise of eating.
We were able to stay in the hospital for a few days to be close to the baby. We spent all day in her little room just holding her or watching her sleep. Every 3 hours like clockwork, the nurse came around to weigh her, change her, and try to help us feed her. The neonatologist suggested that she may have an underdeveloped swallowing mechanism (who knew that this was one of the last developed abilities in the womb and that maybe a 36-week cook was not enough time to develop simple swallowing!). So baby girl was tubed. The nurse warned us that if she continued to not eat, she was putting a tube down her nose to pump food to her belly. But still, when we came back from a little break that 2nd night and saw a tube in her nose and taped down to the side of her face, we were heart broken. Why did our little one have to endure such torture? And what if she didn’t eat eventually?
Over time, we eventually learned to not run out of the room in panic every time one of her monitors went off. We started to calm down and let the doctors take control. We came to the realization that our baby would be fine and we honestly had one of the healthiest little ones in there. So there is a happy ending for her. After 12 days of time well spent with incredible NICU nurses and doctors, we were sent home, kicked to the curb, see you later!
But lets talk about what else was happening. What about mom and dad? Well we were messes. Our families were far away. Visitors were limited. No one could meet our little girl and we were scared and alone. For the first few days the lactation nurse would come visit me to see if my girl would latch. She never did. Instead she would start to shiver and the nurse reminded us how critical it was to get my baby food and so we quickly removed her from the breast after a few short minutes of trying. I tried to pump too. They brought in this industrial hospital-grade pump and every 3 hours I pumped away for the recommended 20-30 minutes. But I was getting nothing. “Keep trying, it takes a while to come in” they said. I kept trying.
For some reason, the minute you tell someone you just had a baby, other women feel the need to ask you if you are breastfeeding. So everyone we interacted with over the next few days, weeks, etc…, asked “are you breastfeeding?” And as simple as it sounds to justify, I couldn’t really explain to anyone, “No, I am not. My baby is in the NICU and she doesn’t take food so she has a tube in her nose that deposits delicious formula directly to her belly”. On top of that, since baby girl was not demanding milk from me, I was having major production issues. My milk never came in. I continued to pump 1/2 ounce of milk every 3 hours.
The lactation nurse suggested I go to the hospital’s breastfeeding support group. So I called to make an appointment and when the person on the phone asked me to describe my issue she said that the support group doesn’t deal with “babies not eating or production issues”. Thanks support group.
“Did you drink some Guinness?”, “Did you try Fenugreek?”, “Maybe you are not drinking enough water, drink more water”. Yes, I heard all the unsolicited advice from people, some strangers even. And why I didn’t have myself a Guinness (because when your baby is in the NICU, really you do not want a beer, even if it is “for the good of the baby”. But I tried the Fenugreek. And yes, it did smell like Indian food. I drank all the water. I tried to stay rested. I drank some red raspberry tea. But the truth of the matter was my baby had not yet developed her swallowing and needed food anyway she can get it. And the lack of demand and the stress of being in the NICU was cause for little to no milk production by me. Sorry world.
When we were released from the hospital my husband and I were ok with the decision to continue to bottle feed our baby. The doctor prescribed us special formula with the extra calories the little one needed and we decided to focus on her growth and what was best for her. But that didn’t stop the constant barrage of inquiries about my breasts and my milk. I finally had to not so nicely ask that people stop asking me about it and stop suggesting what I should do. I called the only person who’s advice I did want to hear…my friend who herself had 2 NICU babies. I asked her if she was able to breastfeed and she told me...”are you kidding? That was such a struggle with my baby being in the NICU and all”. She told me about how with her first, she kept trying because of the guilt she felt from the friends, family and strangers who constantly asked her about it. She experienced exactly what I had. But after about 3 months of doing all she can and being extremely exhausted by making a bottle, feeding the bottle, trying to pump only to get a miniscule amount, cleaning the pump and repeat, she finally gave up. And when she did she was finally able to focus only on her baby and a huge weight was lifted. She was no longer stressed by the ideal that breast is best.
So after 1 month of continuing to keep up with the cycle of bottle-feeding and pumping, I decided I provided all I could to my baby and now I must give her my time and full attention. She had 1 month of delicious, antibodied 0.5 ounces of breast milk a day. And now she will be bottle-fed with only formula.
How do you deal with the sadness and depression you feel from not being able to feed your baby the way your body was made to? You don’t. Because you are a mom now and your tough and stronger than you ever knew you were so you block out the noise and you fight through it to provide how you best can for your baby however that may be. That’s being a good mom. And you just hope you have a supportive partner to back you up and stand by your body’s faults and the decisions you have to make in order to keep your baby thriving and yourself sane. Also you survived the NICU so you should already be proud of all your family has already accomplished.
Having a baby is stressful. The NICU is stressful. Feeding a baby is stressful. You don’t have to let others make it worse. You and you partner have to stay bonded to get through the early challenges. There may be no one to talk to because no one you know has experienced such things. It is normal to not be welcoming to unsolicited help or advice. And the support groups that worked for your friends and neighbors may not be the right fit for you. But it is also ok to ask for help, even if it is just so you can vent and then return to that needy, crying, smelly, adorable, beautiful, wonderful, special, little human. And you know what…bottle-feeding wasn’t so bad. My husband enjoyed the special time he had with her as he fed her every morning. Baby was happy she was eating food and growing appropriately. She is now a plump little food monster who still sometimes has trouble swallowing. We are all just fine. I guess fed is best! ☺