The big feeding question, breast or not, is a complex and emotional journey for preemie mums.
Breastfeeding is a massively emotive topic but in the context of premature birth it’s one which I think needs to be more openly discussed.
The journey which may or may not lead you to breastfeeding your premature baby is long, complex and emotional, it is an entirely different experience to choosing whether to breastfeed a full term baby. There is in fact no comparisons I can draw between having my full term new-born son placed on my chest and watching him wiggle towards my nipple and the weeks spent watching painstakingly expressed breastmilk disappear in an instant down NG tubes and into my twin’s stomachs.
In my opinion the Grand Canyon sized gap between the two experiences, the emotional impact the delay in skin to skin and feeding and the relentless expressing routine has on a preemie mother is not truly recognised.
Within hours of having my twins at 31 weeks by C-section and after spending only a few minutes gazing at them in horror through their incubator windows I was talked through how to express for the boys. In absolute agony I hand expressed and watched tiny drops of colostrum being sucked up into a syringe by the healthcare assistant.
From then on I had to express every two hours 24 hours a day in a bid to develop my milk supply for the boys. The pain was awful as my uterus contracted away against my new C-section wound and my body was in pieces from the constant trips up and down to NICU and the hours spent sitting and staring helplessly.
At just five days postpartum I was discharged and so began the late night and 6am milk runs to the hospital to ensure the boys always had mummies EBM (expressed breast milk). I would set my alarm for every 2 hours throughout the night and instead of being woken to the sound of my babies crying I would hear the beeping alarm and realise I was drenched in milk and I would curse the amount I had wasted by over sleeping. It was sole destroying sitting alone in the dark of our empty nursery expressing but I made it my mission to get as much off as possible for my boys. I had a note book where I wrote down the time and amounts I had expressed and I started to aim for a stock pile as the boys hourly feed rate was constantly increasing. I became obsessed that my boys needed my milk and nothing else would do.
Expressing was the only thing I was able to do for them, I couldn’t change them, feed them or even cuddle them without asking, expressing was all mine, it was me being their mother and it was something only I could do. It felt like a form of mother power if that makes any sense, like I was in control and not the hospital, so the first time the nurse told me during one of my middle of the night calls that they had ran out of EBM and had to give the boys formula I was distraught. I was failing at the one thing that was in my control to do, the one thing that made me feel like I was connected to my boys and like I really was their mother and not just a hospital visitor.
As the days went by and I had to sit for an hour out of my 2-3 hour hospital visit locked in the expressing room separated from my boys I started to resent the barrier expressing was putting between us. Around the same time my milk supply stopped being enough for the boys. As they progressed to two hourly NG tube feeds and the amount increased on a daily basis I slipped behind and before I knew it I had to accept that the boys needed formula as well as my EBM to meet their needs.
I have never been passionate about breastfeeding, I just try to do the best I can for all of my babies but despite this the whole situation and my shell shocked hormones made accepting formula for my twins a painful experience. I desperately wanted to meet their needs, I wanted to be all they needed and I felt so guilty for resenting the time spent sat in the expressing room instead of by their sides. I was broken by what I saw as another failing of me as a mother and my body.
Within a couple of days we had reached a point where the boys were mainly having formula and I knew the nurses were getting ready to say the boys could attempt breastfeeding, deep down I was scared. There was no way I could breastfeed the twins and combine bottle feeding to top them up and look after our toddler once they were home.
I knew I had to make the decision to bottle feed the boys from the moment they came off their NG tubes, if I put them to my breast and felt them so close to me and so dependent and then had to stop and take that feeling away from myself I wouldn’t cope, I wasn’t emotionally strong enough after the weeks spent apart from the boys, the weeks spent wishing I had enough supply and realising I didn’t and the weeks spent longing to have them close to me.
I sat and cried and cried and cried, I felt so much guilt, I felt like I had failed them, like I was giving up, like I was useless, like I was a bad mother, like I didn’t love them enough or I hadn’t tried hard enough. I hated myself in that moment but deep down I also felt truly relieved that a decision had been made and that from now on I could spend every second of my visits sat with my boys, I could stop the torture of the night expressing and most importantly I could stop worrying about how I would breastfeed twins and care for our two-and-a-half-year-old.
Making the decision whether to breastfeed my preemie twins wasn’t an easy one, it was weeks after their birth before they were ready to attempt breast or bottle and I agonised over what to do from that very first day of expressing. Despite being a strong person I worried I would be judged and this fear of judgement from people I didn’t even know only added to the pressure I felt at such a difficult and emotional time.
I never thought I would share this photo of the first time I bottle fed one of my preemies because I worried that to others it was a picture of a mother failing her children, failing her tiny babies, but two years on as I look at my strong crazy toddlers and having lived through the months spent feeding twins I know I did the right thing for us.
This is now a photograph I am proud of, it is a mother finally getting to feed her baby after weeks of tube feeding, it is a baby being cuddled and loved and sustained in his mother’s arms and to me it doesn’t matter if that sustenance is breast milk, EBM or formula, what matters is my boys were loved and fed and in their mummies arms at last.
Trust yourself to make the right decision for you and your family and be proud of how you fed your baby, EBM, breast, formula or a mix of all three. You are an amazingly strong and devoted mother who has been tested beyond words, your best is more than enough and your choice is right.