[Usual disclaimer about how I am not a medical professional, breast feeding peer supporter or anyone with any official knowledge about breastfeeding]
Its kind of lunacy to think that I can contribute anything much to the world of online breastfeeding resources when a. its extremely well-trod territory and b. my qualification is, I’ve done some breastfeeding. Both times I had a stressful start: with my first, mostly because of incompetence; the second time, there was that whole NICU thing. But both times I gave birth, my baby had a nasal gastric tube. Theo had low blood sugar and, though he was full term, was tiny; he had a feeding tube put in directly after birth and spent an afternoon in Special Care. He was also born with an infection and was floppy and lethargic for the first 36 hours of his life, even by newborn standards.
Both times I was desperate to breastfeed. The first time I just couldn’t get the damn baby to latch. I ended up exclusively pumping after failing, every three hours, to get a latch, then dumping milk and formula down the NG tube into his stomach. The midwives didn’t believe me, but the whole depressing ritual – fail to latch, feed, pump, sterilise – took about two hours and forty minutes, leaving you with twenty minutes before it was time to start again. I have confirmed with other women: no matter how long the health professionals say it should take, it takes 2 hours, 40 minutes. For the first several days, no one bothered to tell me that you can pump on both sides simultaneously. Our hospital doled out single-breast packs (one bottle, one set of vacuum parts) and everyone on the ward shared a communal pool of hospital grade pumps.
On the third night, I called my husband, who was asleep at home, to act completely insane and accuse him of failing to support me in my attempts to breastfeed. I have no memory of what behaviour of his set me off, but I do remember that trying to get Theo on the boob had left me shrieking in frustration. I mean, in the normal course of things, I’m not much of a shrieker.
Anyway. The thing that I originally wanted to impart is this: I have had three occasions where I have had kids on NG tubes and have had to introduce breastfeeding slowly, instead of doing the normal thing where you have a kid, put the baby on the boob (or the bottle), call it a day and go home. Even if you do have a lot of success with breastfeeding (in which case, pin a rose on your nose) it can still be painful, time consuming, frustrating….my sister said she was glad she knows, from my experience, that feeding is not an easy and magical experience. And it seems obvious to me now, but three years ago I thought that I would have a baby and they would eat. I thought it was something I could prep for with classes and research. I was wrong.
That said, if you are in a situation similar to mine (especially if you have preemies) there are some things I recommend. First, it is important to be proactive, even if your child will not immediately be taking milk (ie if they are on liquid nutrition to start). You can start hand expressing immediately after birth, and – new in the last couple years – medela, the most common supplier of hospital-grade pumps, has created a ‘preemie initiate’ setting that stimulates the breast before hand expressing.
If you want to breastfeed, the best hing you can do is get after it. Milk yourself every three hours – the way a baby would if they were eating. Only expect a tiny amount at first – colostrum, the milk that comes right after birth, is meticulously collected in il syringes. But if it hurts or you aren’t getting any, ask for help: nurses, midwives and care assistants have experience milking new mums, and they’re probably better at it than you are. If your hospital is stressed for resources, ask for a lesson and have your partner help you collect it. It’s not dignified but…well…you get over it quickly. On my fourth day postpartum, I so get out one of the women who had helped me eke out my first drops and proudly showed her my freshly collected 35 mils. I actually got a little choked up – it was a mix of gratitude, pride, relief and Hormones.
Basically the biggest lesson – which I suspect is a theme – is advocate for yourself. Failing that, prep your partner and have them do it for you. There is no way to physically prepare for breastfeeding, so the best thing you can do if it doesn’t come naturally is ask for help – loudly and repeatedly if needed – and be patient with yourself.
And if, after all that, it doesn’t work out or you decide you actually kind of hate it, buy some formula and move on.