On breastfeeding

Note: Before I dive into this post, I want to make it clear that breastfeeding has been the best option for me and my family — but every family is different. There are many reasons that mamas can’t breastfeed their kiddos and I am very sensitive to that as I have many friends who have wanted to and couldn’t for a variety of reasons. This certainly isn’t meant to make anybody feel bad or defensive – it is simply a sharing of my personal experience to encourage new mamas and the medical professionals who help them. With all the pressures that new moms face, we should always seek to first understand, empathize and uplift each other before passing judgment about who’s-doing-what and what’s best for a given situation.

And now… on with the post.

As I noted in Kate’s birth story, one of the first things I was told when we received her diagnosis was that she would most likely not be able to breastfeed. It is true that it can be harder to breastfeed kiddos with Down Syndrome because they are more prone to have low muscle tone and thus not be able to latch as well to the breast. However, with some determination, we were able to do so successfully and it has been a great thing for both Kate and I. After reflecting upon this with Kate’s Occupational Therapist (who is still affiliated with our hospital’s NICU), she asked me if I could share my experience so that she could pass it along to her nurses. And so, I did. I thought it would be beneficial to share my email here as well. (This was written a month or so ago).

… I’ve been meaning to share some things on my heart and was reminded of it again today (we spent the night at the hospital because Kate has RSV – she’s doing much better). A nurse was chatting with us, impressed that Kate was doing so great breastfeeding – something that she hadn’t seen in many babies with Down Syndrome. And I was again reminded that I wanted to encourage your NICU staff with Kate’s story. So here it is.

When Kate was born, Dr. T was the doctor who shared the news of Kate’s diagnosis. He was very matter-of-fact, but kind – and as he said when he first came in the room, “there is no good way to share this news.” But one thing he told us is that he’s only seen one baby with D.S. since 1987 (or a date around there) breastfeed. He wasn’t meaning to be discouraging, simply stating his experience, but it of course planted a seed of doubt in a new mother who was already shaken by some pretty life-changing news.

However, I had great success breasfeeding my first child – and I knew how important that experience was for both bonding and my child’s health – so I was determined to do that with Kate. She was a sleepy eater in the NICU, and well-meaning doctors and nurses wanted to help her come home as soon as possible, so the general sentiment was to push bottle-feeding as much as possible. After all, it was easier to measure how much she was actually eating and the nurses could work with her when I wasn’t present. But I kept at it – breastfeeding her whenever I came in and trying my best to bond with this sweet little infant through the wires and tubes that bound her.

That determination paid off and Kate is an incredibly strong breastfeeder, doubling her weight since birth from 4 lb 12 oz to almost 10 lbs in just 3 months. I was also able to better bond and heal with my sweet little pea pod, which has helped me to come to an incredible place of peace and joy about her diagnosis. I wouldn’t change a thing. But I was lucky because 1. I had a past successful breastfeeding experience that made me confident in my abilities and 2. I have an incredible support system who nurture me, and in turn, allow me to be nurturing. As you know, some of your NICU mothers do not have these blessings.

Some are young, inexperienced and frightened – lacking support systems and encouragement. To these mothers, Dr. T’s comment would have been all they needed to not even try. Intimidated, insecure – and without positive examples of a mother in their lives – some of these mothers probably have a hard time bonding with their new infants. Which is why the NICU nurses and the entire experience is so, so important for not just the success of these babies, but for the families who take them home.

I loved my nurses and had a great experience – they were knowledgeable and friendly, warm and comforting. But I want to continue to encourage them to know that they are so much more than medical professionals to these women. They are counselors, friends, and mothers. They have so much power – that in a few kind words of encouragement – can make an insecure mom feel so confident in her abilities. I believe that breastfeeding is especially important in the NICU, yet it seems like the one place in the hospital where it isn’t encouraged quite as much as it could be – and I understand the reasons why. But I also know that by leading with stories of success and encouragement, by showing patience, by showing a nurturing example, these moms can gain so much from the experience.

And now Dr. T can share with new mommies who have just learned their newborn has D.S. that he has two success stories – and that there are so, so many more out there as I know many moms who have successfully breastfed their babies with Down Syndrome.

Thank you for all you and your fellow staff do. You are not just saving lives – you are building families!

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