Dear NICU Moms: It’s Okay To Stop Pumping

I’m a NICU mom. I quit pumping…and you can too.

When I was pregnant, several people asked me if I planned to breastfeed. My answer was always the same: “I will definitely try.”

I actually read on a blog recently someone saying they didn’t like when people say they will “try”. The writer felt that was a ridiculous statement because everyone can breastfeed.

I’m here to say, that is 100% not true.

When my son was born more than 9 weeks early, I really wanted to provide breastmilk for him because he was a “preemie”. Physically “breastfeeding” him wasn’t logistically possible as he hadn’t yet learned to swallow, suck and breathe (apparently, they learn that in the womb around 34 weeks), so he was taking all of his “feeds” through a feeding tube.

A nurse (or a lactation consultant, I really can’t remember as I was still pretty shell-shocked about having my baby early) rolled in a breast pump machine, breast pump kit, syringe and labels. She patiently demonstrated just how to use the machine. Nothing was coming out now, but she assured me my milk would “come in” in a few days. In the meantime however, I was to pump around the clock every 2-3 hours.

The next day, a lactation consultant visited my hospital room. I told her I still hadn’t gotten anything – including colostrum – so she showed me how to hand express. I was shocked when liquid slowly oozed out of my boobs! It’s really happening, I thought to myself. I figured a few drops in my syringe that day was just a precursor to the mountains of bottles I would be filling up as soon as my milk came in.

After being discharged from the hospital two days later, I went to Babies R Us and rented the exact same machine they had in the hospital.

I continued to pump around the clock and continued to get nothing. And I don’t mean the “nothing” that people say they’re getting when they’re actually getting about 2 ounces. I was literally getting NOTHING. Not even a drop.

A week in to this, I began to panic.

Because I was sitting in the NICU for 10-12 hours a day, I talked to a lot of nurses and lactation consultants. I endured the innocent “do you have any milk, Mom?” question over and over again. I wanted to scream, if I HAD milk, don’t you think I would give it to you??

The lactation consultants and nurses suggested I keep trying. “Drink water.” “Eat oatmeal.” “Do lots of skin-to-skin with your baby.” “Look at pictures and videos of him while you’re pumping.” Tried it. Tried it. Tried it. Tried it. Still nothing!

I began to up the ante. I put a heating pad across my chest. I tried harder hand expressing. I bought fenugreek pills and Yogi tea.

For all my efforts, I got one to five mls on a good day. Yes MILLILETERS. And, yes I was pumping around the clock – even waking up in the middle of the night to pump.

One night, around about 4am, I had a breakdown.

Exhausted and bone-dry, I cried.

My husband seeing my dedication to pumping and my anguish with the results suggested I stop.

“But he needs my breastmilk!” I explained through tears. Our son was trapped in a hospital, surrounded by strangers and struggling to thrive outside of the womb. All I had to do was come through on my ONE JOB: provide breastmilk.

My husband, the ever-present voice of reason even in the midst of the most trying time of our lives said simply, “He’s not getting your breastmilk anyway. You’re just putting yourself through torture.” Or something like that. I can’t really remember exactly what he said because I was crying and delirious.

The next day, I talked to my son’s neonatologist and dietician. They both assured me that he would be fine on formula, so that night, I quit pumping cold turkey. I got the best night’s sleep I’d had in weeks and with the stress of the NICU, I needed that sleep for me and my baby.

And you know what? My boobs never filled up and never felt sore. It was as though I had never tried breastfeeding at all.

At times, I still feel bad about not being able to breastfeed my baby. Stirring up that weird powder stuff sometimes causes me a twinge of pain. At least once a day, while feeding my son with a bottle, I say out loud to my husband “I wish I was breastfeeding our son”.

And like so many things I’ve had to make my peace with since my preterm labor — no baby shower, no maternity photos, no Fresh48 photos, no “big and pregnant” stage, no last ten weeks of my pregnancy, no fun “going into labor” moments — I’ve had to struggle to make my peace with the fact that I’m not a mom who breastfeeds.

Eventually, I returned the pump to the store, placed all the breastfeeding pump accessories in a box, and put away my handsfree pumping bra, maternity bras, maternity camis and sweaters and the nursing covers I had invested in. The disappointment and dejection I felt while doing this is hard to put into words. I didn’t even know I wanted to breastfeed so bad until the realization hit me that this was not an option for me.

It’s one thing to DECIDE not to breastfeed, but knowing my body failed my son (again) is tough to take.

What makes it harder are the constant (real or imagined!) reminders of all of the benefits of breastfeeding (and breast milk in general!) from boosting his immune system and going easy on his digestion system to healing his chapped lips and treating diaper rash, and I just feel defeated. [Seriously, I googled “how to treat a newborn’s dry lips” and the first result was “use your breastmilk”. I wanted to throw my phone across the room!]

In those moments, I continue to remind myself that there are millions of babies in the world and a solid percentage of them are not fed breastmilk for a myriad of reasons. That’s what formula is for: women who don’t breastfeed – either because they can’t or they don’t want to. My son will be 100% fine.

And when people ask if I’m breastfeeding, I’ll just say no and not let anyone make me feel bad about it. I gave it my best effort, failed and moved on. And you can too!

Comment here or tweet me @AlissaHenryTV :)

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