making milk in the NICU: it takes a village
This week, my former 27 week old preemie Agnes, turns one. We have had our last late night nursing session, I have pumped my last ounce, and my husband has washed his last pump part (for now). Looking back, with some distance and clearer eyes, at those first 67 days in the NICU, I am in awe of the village of nursing moms and breastfeeding supporters that helped us along the way.
The village showed up.
As some of you know, when you have a baby 3 months early, your milk is slow to come in, the stress can F with your supply, and your preemie isn't able to feed right away. I needed and got a whole lot of supporters rallying around me. Friends, family and neighbors…some who came to visit weekly to sit with me or bring a meal, others texted or emailed daily. There is power in the act of showing up. Some visits were quick and some friends knew when I needed them to just be with me during those long quiet days. Lactation consultants, nurses, and moms who donate milk showed up too. I had a difficult emergency c-section and was a guest of the Mom and Baby floor for 6 days. When your baby is in the NICU critically ill, it’s brutal to exist in and walk down that happy hall, with the lullaby that signals a new baby chiming over head. Thank God for Marsha. She was a labor and delivery nurse that was with me on my hardest day. She cared for me, hugged me, tended to me and helped me keep up with hand expressing and pumping, during a time I thought we were going to lose our daughter. Marsha continued to showed up every week in the NICU to check in and hug us and was there the day we finally left the hospital with Agnes.
The village supports.
In the first days of NICU life, the hospital lactation consultants showed me how to hand express into a spoon and suck the colostrum it into a 1 ml syringe. Those LC’s held my hand, and sometimes my boob, while I cried ugly tears. And they told me over and over again what we all need to hear, “hey mama, you got this!” One of the only “perks” of having a child in the NICU, is that you have LC’s on hand every day to help you tackle low flow, cracks, pumping blisters, blocked ducts…mastitis. That support helped me, help Agnes. One day at a time, one pumping session at a time.
The village provides.
Our daughter was too little to attempt breastfeeding until she was closer to her due date, so I hand expressed and pumped day and night so she could get my breastmilk through the feeding tube that went in her nose and down into her stomach. The stress of that time though was hard on my supply; and when it dipped, I relied on donor milk to feed her. I still get choked up when I think about those moms who pump to donate milk to NICU babies. It is a true act of love and sisterhood and a selfless gift of health and wellness for sick little ones. I felt connected to the greater mamahood tribe through my baby and those ounces of liquid gold. I’ll never know them or be able to thank them, but moms who donate milk to NICU babies will always hold a special place in my heart. For they were truly part of the village that provides.
The village nourishes.
Despite noble attempts, a NICU is not a place that is made to nourish and support moms. Its energy and resources, rightly so, go to critically ill babies. But, mamas need nourishing, especially during a time when they are being stripped down emotionally. For us, family, friends and neighbors moved in, cooked and cleaned, mowed the yard, walked dogs and generally made it possible for my husband and I to just be with Agnes at the hospital. It’s a lonely and isolating time, but also one that affirms love and connection with community. Our village truly nourished us during that time.
The village holds us close.
We were fortunate that my husband’s job allowed him to take several weeks off to be with us while we were navigating our new life at the hospital. He helped me to make milk by navigating the milk making journey with me. He fed me while I was feeding our baby. He washed pump parts and brought me my phone or a pen or 1000 other things that I couldn't reach while hooked up to a pump or pinned down under a sleeping baby. He cheered me on and helped us succeed. He held my hand, or my milk, and whenever I needed…he held me so close.
I've realized so humbly that breastfeeding is hard. And it can be really isolating. But, looking back I see that I wasn't alone. So many people showed up to make it possible for me to feed Agnes. People I knew and some I will never know nourished me and nourished my child. In this great village of ours, our humanity links us and calls us to show up.
Will you be part of the village that shows up for mamas like me? Visit our kickstarter campaign to see how your pledge can make all the difference in the world.
And happy World Breastfeeding Week from me to all of you!
Gretchen is mama to Agnes, a tough little former preemie, NICU grad, and all around amazing baby. Despite an unexpectedly early and challenging start to motherhood, Gretchen quickly set to work pumping and eventually breastfeeding. She found a sense of calm and connection in providing badly needed nourishment and immune support to Agnes.
These days, when Gretchen isn't playing with her daughter, she is supporting and connecting with mamas on the pumpspotting app and social media sites. She loves connecting with moms and sharing their stories that show that breastfeeding is powerful and really beautiful.