Pumping in the NICU: Liquid Gold or Liquid Guilt? baby in an NICU isolette
Breastfeeding Guilt Mental Health

Pumping in the NICU: Liquid Gold or Liquid Guilt?

By Andrea Mullenmeister

Two hours after my son was born, a lactation consultant knocked on my hospital room door. She peeked her head in and asked “Are you going to breastfeed?”

I stared at her, trying to process the question. I had just delivered my baby four months before his due date and my tiny one-pound son was rushed to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) before I could even see him. I was in shock.

“Well,” I stumbled, wondering how a baby that small would even be able to eat. “I’m not sure yet.”

She pushed the door wide open and stood with her hands on her hips. “You do know that giving breast milk is the only thing you can do for your baby now, right?” she said, “It’s liquid GOLD!”

Whoa – that’s a lot of pressure! I started pumping as soon as she wheeled the hospital-grade breast pump into my room. It felt weird. Nothing happened. Nurses told me it could take a few days for my milk to come in.

I tried pumping next to my preemie’s isolette in the NICU. He stopped breathing and turned blue. Nurses rushed to get his heart rate and oxygen levels back up. Tears ran down my face as I stumbled out of the way trying to cover myself so my boobs weren’t hanging out for all to see. I spilled what little milk I had pumped in the process. That was the last time I pumped bedside.

The hospital had a pumping room with a curtain and two old chairs. The clock ticked so loud, I could hear it over the “chugga-chugga” of the breast pump. There was one ugly painting on the wall, dingy from years of neglect. I left my baby’s bedside every two hours to stare at that painting because I had started to get milk.

When my son was two days old, they gave him the first of my breast milk through his feeding tube. As soon as I saw that my pumping efforts were going to pay off, it made the ugly pumping room look a little prettier – I was doing something for my preemie.

I usually produced 1/2 ounce of milk at a time. On good days, I would get almost a whole ounce. I thought that was pretty good until I saw the other moms leaving the pumping room with huge bottles full of 5 or 6 ounces.

Uh oh.

I started taking herbal supplements touted to increase milk supply. They helped, but not enough.

I took a prescription medication with a side effect of increased breast milk production. Other side effects included uncontrolled muscle spasms, inability to keep still, and Parkinson’s-like symptoms. OK – that didn’t work.

My son ate so little at first, I started gathering a stockpile of milk in the freezer. I was so proud! Until he started eating an ounce at a time and then two ounces. My freezer supply dwindled.

But damn it! I was going to get my son his liquid gold!

I kept thinking about what the lactation consultant said that first day “It’s the only thing you can do for your baby.” I was failing him. Again. First, I couldn’t keep him in; then I couldn’t feed him. Guilt is a bitch.

I was miserable. I spent at least 5 hours a day hooked up to a machine. I did “power pumping” where I pumped for 10 minutes every 20 minutes for 2 hours. I read every book and research article that I could find about increasing milk supply. I spent hours with the lactation consultants trying new techniques. I said I wanted to quit….they said, hang in there, you can do it!

But, I couldn’t.

My body would not cooperate. I was stressed out and in pain. (I’m sure that did not help.) I was so guilty. All of the posters in the hospital told me day in and day out that “Breast Milk Is Best!” But, there were no posters that said “Pumping Milk for a Preemie Might Not Work – It’s Not Your Fault!”

My son quickly out-ate my supply. The only option left was formula. Thankfully, my preemie did well with the transition from breast milk to formula.

Even though pumping breast milk was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, I’m glad that I stuck with it for as long as I did. I was able to give my son breast milk, even if it was only a tiny bit. I appreciate the lactation consultants who were there to keep me motivated when I wanted to quit. But I wish there was more support for those of us who are physically unable to continue breastfeeding or pumping.

I’m not encouraging anyone to stop pumping. If you are, and it’s working, please keep going! You are doing an amazing thing for your baby. But, if you’re like me and pumping is becoming a source of pain and stress and it’s just not working even though you’ve tried everything…it’s ok to stop. We can let go of the guilt together.

Maybe I’ll make a new poster for the walls: “Breast milk is liquid gold, but formula is golden, too.”

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