I am all for breastfeeding. I am amazed by the life-saving power of breast milk, that I have witnessed first hand. I know that breast milk is both nutrition and medicine especially for the tiniest of babies. I understand why it is referred to as liquid gold. And yet somehow this description falls short when you are agonizing over every single ounce. So you would probably assume that I breastfed my twins…well not exactly.
I fell into a gray area when it came to breastfeeding, I was an exclusive pumper. Perhaps it was my own insecurity, but I never felt like I should say I breastfed without a long clarifying statement. My twins were born at 28 weeks. Much too small and fragile to eat by mouth, let alone to latch and suck. So like many preemie mommas, I started pumping. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to produce any milk after such a traumatic and early birth, but I had to try. The NICU staff that were caring for my twins stressed the importance of every drop. They said my preemies needed more calories and nutrients to help them grow quickly. Breast milk was one of the best ways to help reduce the risk of NEC, build immunity, and prevent infection.
After a day or two, it finally started to work. It went from, “I think there might be something in the bottle,” to a full ounce, then two. Those sweet nurses cheered over any amount of milk I was able to express, which was promptly walked down the hall to the NICU.
Soon the day came when I was ready to leave the hospital, but my babies were not. It is a heart-wrenching experience to leave the hospital no longer pregnant, but without a baby. I had to rely on the nurses to tell me how my babies were doing, to show me how to care for them, and to give me permission to hold them. But the one thing that only I could provide was breast milk. I felt like I couldn’t do much for my babies while they were in the NICU, but I could pump. So that’s what I did.
Each morning I drove to the NICU with a cooler packed full of milk. It certainly wasn’t easy. I was setting alarms and waking up multiple times a night to pump for 30 minutes and fill those tiny hospital-supplied bottles with milk. I bought another freezer to store all the bottles until they were needed at the hospital. I thought I would continue to pump until they were released from the hospital. And two months later when they were, I didn’t quit. When one of my twins was diagnosed with an intolerance to dairy, I was advised to cut all the common food allergens from my diet if I was going to continue to feed them breast milk. I drastically changed my diet and eliminated dairy, tree nuts, soy, and shellfish.
For 15 months, pumping for my twins was a huge part of my life. I pumped inside, I pumped outside. I pumped in the car, while washing bottles, and while feeding babies. I pumped with clogged milk ducts. I even was able to pump while sleeping. Pumping was important to me; it made me feel like a mother. When I had very little to give my preemies in the NICU, pumping for them gave me a sense of purpose. When I had very little control over their care and their health, I felt empowered by my ability to provide something they needed. When I felt like my body had failed in growing my babies to term, I felt it redeemed itself by producing a perfect food for them. So even though it was hard and time-consuming, I never gave up.
Did I breastfeed my twins? Well not in its purest form. What ended up being true for us was not the picture of a mother with her child at her breast. It was a compromise. The process was vastly different, but the end results essentially the same. So this month as we celebrate breastfeeding and raise awareness of its benefits, remember the exclusive pumpers. We want to be seen. We want to join in on the stories and perspectives of nourishing our children. And we want to share our stories, just as soon as we find an outlet to plug in our breast pumps!