August is Breastfeeding Awareness Month. It may seem odd to some that we need a designated month to promote something as natural as breastfeeding. But the truth is, breastfeeding is not always easy nor does it always feel natural. From low milk supply to engorgement, plugged ducts and mastitis, new moms can face many challenges and need information, support and guidance to ensure the baby is latching on correctly, feeding regularly and maintaining a healthy growth pattern.
It can take many months before moms of babies born preterm or with special health care needs are able to exclusively breastfeed their baby. We rely on breast pumps with the suction power of industrial grade vacuum cleaners to express our milk. We agonize over every ounce collected and we are rarely seen without the hospital-issued cooler bag that protects our liquid gold.
We cling to the hope that one day soon our baby will have the strength and coordination to latch on, and remember to suck, swallow and breathe. We fantasize about ridding ourselves of nipple shields and breast shells, and about breastfeeding our babies at 1 am while softly singing lullabies. Until then, we keep pumping. We practice Kangaroo Care and we wait patiently for the green light to put our baby to the breast.
Both my micro-preemie and my late preterm baby struggled with breastfeeding. It took my son more than five months to breastfeed exclusively and my daughter struggled with jaundice because she was not taking enough milk. Both experiences required me to seek the support of professional lactation consultants who not only helped me master the perfect football hold but more importantly provided the encouragement and reassurance I needed to keep trying. I was lucky because I did eventually get to exclusively breastfeed and I cherish those memories and am grateful for the experience.
While breastfeeding is instinctual, it is not without challenges, especially for NICU moms. During this important awareness month, I pause to honor the many NICU moms Hand to Hold supports who are unable to breastfeed, which happens more commonly than one might expect. We are extremely lucky that donor milk from nonprofit milk banks is widely available by prescription for NICU babies and are grateful to all the moms who donate their extra breastmilk to make that possible. We also salute lactation consultants, dietitians and NICU nurses who provide the extra support NICU moms need to ensure the best start for our babies.