By Kelly Richardson
When I was pregnant with my son, Eirik, the question of whether or not to breastfeed never entered into my mind. The answer was always “I am going to breastfeed my child. Period.” Sometimes, life is busy making other plans as you watch yours go by the wayside.
My son’s pregnancy and delivery story was one of those you hear about in the “Be glad you’re not like this woman I know” comments that get passed to newly pregnant moms. Eirik was named after Eirikr en Raude – more commonly known as the viking Erik the Red – because he was a strong fighter early on. From early first trimester bleeding scares and bed rest, to having shingles, finding out my husband and I were carriers for the cystic fibrosis gene and the start of the slow and dangerous blood pressure creep in my second trimester, to full-blown pre-eclampsia culminating in a totally unplanned C-section that brought our viking son into the world at just over 34 weeks, I would not have wished my pregnancy on anyone.
Soon after my second trimester began, my blood pressure started to rise. Watching the numbers steadily climb each week at my appointment and knowing it was only a matter of time, my OB gave me steroids at 24 weeks to hasten Eirik’s lung development. As the weeks ticked by, my husband and I read all that I could about the care and feeding of premature babies, and hoped every day that my blood pressure would stabilize and our son could grow just a little bit more. After reading about the benefits and challenges of breastfeeding a preemie, I did some research on pumps and went out and purchased my work-horse pump as a “just in case” measure. Looking back, this was the best investments that I ever made.
After spending three days in the hospital on bed rest at the start of week 34 after my blood pressure climbed dangerously high, ultrasounds showed that my son was not growing and I was starting to lose amniotic fluid. My body was not ready for labor – I wasn’t dilated, only 25% effaced, and Eirik wasn’t stationed correctly in order for me to even be a good candidate for an induction, so I had a C-section. My son was delivered that evening, and early on, it was apparent that he had problems breathing. I saw Eirik for a few brief moments in the OR, and then for a few moments before they rushed him, and my husband, to a hospital equipped with a NICU that was 20 miles away.
There were no flowers, no balloons, no happy pictures of our new family together, no post-birth glow.
Being that we were military and this was short notice, both of our families were 1000 miles away and also unable to be there either. I spent my first night as a new mother by myself, without my son or my husband.
The next day, my ‘aunt’ – actually my mother’s cousin – came down to stay with me throughout the day, even though I was a zombie from the magnesium sulfate and pain medications. She brought me a beautiful bouquet of flowers and I was glad that she was there for support and to answer calls from my husband letting me know how Eirik was doing. His breathing difficulties increased and he was put on CPAP to raise his oxygen levels. My husband stayed with him around the clock in the NICU, sleeping by the side of his warmer in a rocking chair. The nurses at my hospital were wonderful and did the best they could to be there for me and comfort me. One of the nurses heard about my wishes to be able to breastfeed and made it her mission to call in the lactation consultant after she had left for the day to make sure that I learned how to use my pump and that I got off to a good start pumping for my son.
The LC was great – she helped me figure out how to put together and use my own pump, and showed me how to use the hospital’s pump. I was thrilled to be able to pump just a little colostrum at the first session. It seemed like so little, but I knew that my son would need it. He was on an IV and they were not giving him milk at that point, but the NICU nurses would freeze and save everything that I sent over so that way as soon as he could have milk, he’d have some straight from me. I pumped every three hours because I knew from my reading that I needed to pump frequently to establish a supply.
Upon being released from the hospital, I went to see my son. I couldn’t believe that it was him underneath all of the wires, tubes, and monitors. The shock and despair of seeing him like that, not being able to hold him, missing my husband and my family, the pain of the C-section and the start of the baby blues took its toll on me: I tried using the NICU’s super-duper hospital grade pump and wasn’t able to get a drop. I was devastated. Thankfully, one of the NICU nurses talked with me and told me the best thing I could do was to go home, take my pain medication, get something good to eat, snuggle with my husband for a couple of hours, try pumping again, and let the NICU take care of my son. I’m glad that my usual stubborn self decided to step out at that moment instead of trying to put on a brave face and stick it out.
After getting a couple hours of sleep curled up in my husband’s arms and having some of my favorite food, I tried pumping again. Success! I got an ounce of milk. The next time I tried pumping, I had more. Then my milk came in, something for which I was totally unprepared. While you can read all about the mechanics of how breasts make milk, nothing really prepares you for the moment when your breasts swell up and you can actually do it. I was astonished to see all of the milk being pumped into the bottles as I held the horns up with my husband helping to massage my breasts in order to help with my let-down. I was so relieved that even after all the things that had gone wrong with my pregnancy, here was my body being able to finally do something right.
Four days of being in the NICU later, I finally got to hold Eirik for a brief moment while the nurses were changing out his bedding. It was wonderful to finally feel my son in my arms for the first time. My son stayed in the NICU for two weeks – which were a blur of hospital visits, pumping every three hours, cleaning my two sets of pump parts, and missing my son. During those two weeks, we tried many times to get him to get the mama juice “straight from the taps” but he had difficulty latching and wasn’t able to nurse.
Despite being able to pump milk at home – and plenty of it – Eirik wasn’t getting any during our sessions even if my breasts full to the point of spraying milk like a Super-soaker water pistol. The NICU staff was concerned that Eirik was expending more energy than what he could eat despite us trying different nursing positions and using a nipple shield, so we continued to bottle feed him breastmilk. (It was only at his 18-month checkup that we found he probably had problems due to an attached upper lip frenulum that went undetected.) Even without being able to breastfeed and exclusively pumping, my supply steadily increased. By the time Eirik was released, I was able to pump over 30 ounces a day, which was more than double of what my son could eat, and I was starting what would become a huge freezer stash.
My son was finally cleared for discharge two weeks after his early entrance into the world. Bundled up in his carseat and weighing just under 5 pounds, I couldn’t believe that Eirik was going to come home with us. When my husband, my son and I finally passed through those NICU doors one last time together as a family, it was a truly amazing feeling knowing that our lives together had just started.
Formerly a restaurant inspector in a large city, Kelly has hung up her
food crimefighter cape to be a stay-at-home mom to her son, Eirik, and
soon-to-be daughter, Skadi, in Fort Bragg, NC. She is a supporter of
pumping moms, breastmilk donation and milk-sharing.
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