This was not the plan. It also wasn’t part of the plan to develop preeclampsia and have a failed induction lead to a c-section six weeks before my due date – but that’s another story.
My daughter, Hazel, greeted the world at a mere four pounds. I was given a quick glimpse of her scrunched face and full head of brown hair before she was wheeled into the NICU and out of sight. I was wheeled into my recovery room with a brand new gash in my belly and still seeing double thanks to my cocktail of morphine and magnesium.
Finally, as the energy and urgency settled down, a nurse approached and handed me … a breast pump. Not the child I had so lovingly (and laboriously) carried for months on end – a stark white, hard, hospital-grade breast pump. I was told how important it was to give my premature baby colostrum, and the nurse helped me clumsily maneuver the machine. I hadn’t brought my pumping bra, and my arms were still weak, so my husband held the flanges to my breasts while a pitiful amount of colostrum dripped into the containers. My pumping journey had begun.
It felt like it was always time to pump. I’d wake up and then need to pump. I’d eat and then need to pump. The lactation consultant recommended I pump nine times a day to jump start my supply. The first few days I struggled to pump even five times a day. I was so tired and anxious over my NICU baby – the last thing I wanted to do was hook myself up to a machine that likened me to a cow on a farm. After every pumping session, I’d bring in my milliliters of milk to the NICU where they’d prepare it for her next tube feed. I wasn’t producing enough yet, so I signed the consent form to accept donor milk to supplement. A small amount of formula was also added for extra nutrition.
Pumping and the NICU
I was eventually discharged from the hospital, but was given the opportunity to stay in my room for up to ten days since I had a baby in the NICU down the hall. I settled into my new routine of sleeping, pumping, visiting the NICU, eating, pumping, visiting the NICU, sleeping, pumping, visiting the NICU, and so on. Instead of a crying baby, the alarms on my phone told me when it was time to pump.
I had to make sure I was pumping at least once in the night, so I’d have a 1 or 2am alarm set. Those were the hardest. I had to will myself out of bed and hook myself up to the pump. Then I’d have to sit there for 15 to 20 minutes- not able to lay down or even slouch. I had to remain upright to avoid leaks or spills. Once done, I’d have to unhook myself, clean all the pump parts, and again deliver the milk to the NICU. By the time I laid back down I was wide awake and would usually take at least another half hour to fall asleep again.
It was absolutely exhausting. I knew being a brand new parent came with sleepless nights, but I also expected it to come with oodles of baby snuggles and endless mama-baby bonding. I felt like I was missing out on the usual rewards of new motherhood.
Hazel spent her first 30 days in the NICU. We tried nursing, but she’d suck for a few minutes, grow tired, and fall asleep. In order to monitor her milk intake, it was imperative that she be primarily bottle-fed. So our breastfeeding sessions were few and far between. I am grateful, however, to have at least experienced that feeling, as brief as it was.
Towards the end of our NICU stay, it was clear Hazel had developed acid reflux- a common trait for premature babies. It wasn’t unusual for a third of her meal to come back- usually through her nose, and usually all over us. In time, I got used to seeing the milk I had worked so hard to pump get regurgitated. As long as she’s keeping most of it down and still gaining weight, I’d tell myself. We left the NICU with a six-pound baby.
Working on increasing milk supply
Our first days home were awkward and anxious, but we felt a new comfort in being able to care for our baby in the nursery we so meticulously created. By this point, my supply had increased to the point where we’d only have to give her one formula bottle a day. But formula seemed to cause her terrible pain when it came back up. She’d open her mouth wide, eyes winced, face red, and silently scream. With this, I felt even more pressure to continue to pump.
I began keeping track of my milk output. At that time, I was producing about 12 ounces a day. I tried different things to increase my supply – supplements, lactation cookies, power pumping, hand expressing, etc. Ultimately, I found a few power pumping sessions and routinely hand-expressing after each pump session worked best. I was pumping eight times a day. Eight times a day I had to figure out how to care for my daughter while being hooked up to this machine. Sometimes that meant having my husband feed her, and sometimes it meant having to juggle a baby and two containers of milk hanging from my chest. I forced myself to continue, in the hopes I’d eventually be able to feed her only breast milk.
Towards the end of maternity leave, my hope became a reality. I was producing about 25 ounces per day, and able to feed her solely breast milk. She was prescribed Zantac for her reflux, which seemed to be helping. And she was definitely gaining weight. I settled into a groove with pumping. I found pumping bras I liked, I incentivized myself to pump while doing crossword puzzles, and I even discovered how to feed Hazel while pumping. But I still hated it.
Pumping “expiration date”
By the time I had to go back to work, one of the worst flu seasons on record was in full swing. I kept seeing headline after headline about flu hospitalizations and flu deaths and there I was about to send my baby to germy, sniffley, snotty daycare. It was a difficult transition considering her first month of life we had to scrub our hands with antibacterial soap for three full minutes before visiting with her. But we didn’t have a choice in the matter. I had to work, and she needed care. The only thing I could do was continue to pump in the hopes that the antibodies in my breast milk would help protect her. So I committed to pumping until she turned six months old, which coincided with the end of flu season.
Today, we are only three weeks away from that date. My supply has increased and plateaued around 32 ounces per day, and I’m only having to pump five times a day. Despite Hazel sleeping through the night for the last few months, I’ve continued with my middle-of-the-night pumping sessions. I’ve even been able to build up a freezer supply since I am slightly over-producing.
Putting an expiration date on my pumping journey was helpful because it gave me a clear timeframe to count down to. Telling myself to pump for “only three more months” was easier to swallow than “indefinitely.” But now that that time is approaching, I feel like I can continue a bit longer. Maybe it’s become so routine that it’s hard to imagine not pumping, or maybe watching my four-pound preemie surpass 13 pounds has inspired me to keep going. I am content with my decision to pump as long (or as short) as I want.
The exclusive pumping journey
Exclusively pumping is a unique and difficult journey. It is very different than breastfeeding or formula feeding. In fact, when asked by doctors if I was breast or bottle feeding, I’d often feel like I’d have to explain that I’m doing option “C”- pumping. I’m sure breastfeeding and formula-feeding come with their own challenges, but exclusive pumping is all I know. I wrote this because I want other new moms to know that it is possible to have a love/hate relationship with your breast pump.
I was lucky in that the only pressures I felt were my own. I know others have been ridiculed, shamed, or judged for choosing to breastfeed, formula-feed, or “option C.” I am a firm believer that “fed is best,” and for me, that meant exclusively pumping.
So hang in there, exclusively pumping mamas. It’s not forever, and only do it as long as it feels right. Yes, it’s a lot of work, and yes it’s “utterly” exhausting (pun intended), but you are truly a hero for your little one – no matter how you feed them. And yes, I did have to pump while writing this!