We've all heard stories about the miraculous benefits of breastfeeding. Here is one mum's journey breastfeeding a premature baby.
I still remember that day, when I had gone to visit my sick husband in hospital. I was fixing his discharge papers when I started feeling contractions. My doctor ran some tests and I was given the go signal to go home and rest. I was probably just tired from taking care of my hubby.
Before we even got to our car, I suddenly felt dizzy. Good thing my husband caught me before I fell to the floor. I was put on the wheelchair and rushed to the High Risk Pregnancy Unit (HRPU) of the hospital, a sort of intensive care unit (ICU) for pregnant women.
My doctor told me I was having pre-term labour. I was only 32 weeks! I was given medicine to make my baby's lungs mature. And I was taken off my gestational diabetes diet and put on Insulin so I could eat more and gain more weight for the baby.
They also put me on complete bed rest. I couldn't even go to the bathroom. I had to use a bed pan!
Just as I was being taken off my meds, I started experiencing contractions again. But unlike the previous day's episode, I was really feeling the pain. It was pre-term labour, for sure. The meds went back in to prevent the contractions. I was also given something to help me relax and sleep.
After about six hours, I was still experiencing pain. One of the residents gave me an internal exam and said that my cervix was open. There was no stopping the baby from coming out. I was going to give birth.
They immediately called my doctor. She said my baby's heart rate was slowing down. It was time to call my family because I was getting an emergency C-section.
I was in so much pain, I couldn't think straight. I was asked to crumple up like a ball, so they could put the anesthesia in.
The moment they sliced me open, I heard my doctor shout, "Clamp, clamp, clamp!" It was like they popped a water balloon filled with blood. I felt something warm and sticky on my back. Little did I know, I was drenched in my own blood.
Why wasn't my baby crying?
A few moments later, they were able to take my baby out. I saw one of the doctors bring her to the other side of the room. There were about five people crowding over her.
And then I realised she wasn't crying. Why wasn't she crying?
I wanted to go over to where she was to see what was happening, but the doctors still had me on the table, stitching and fixing up my insides.
After what seemed like the longest five minutes of my life, I heard my baby girl whimper. It wasn't even a loud cry, not like her brother who bawled his way out of my belly. But it was enough for me to know that she was at least alive.
The neonatal pediatrician had her in her arms when she told me that she was bringing my baby to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
They rushed her out, just as quickly as they got her out of my tummy. I didn't even see her. We didn't have our first hug, first photo together, first latch, first kiss, first anything.
I felt robbed of what would have been a joyous and momentous occasion.
After stitching me up, my doctor told me my husband was outside the delivery room. She could let him in, if I wanted to, but she suggested that he might get queasy because of all the blood. I agreed, too tired to protest.
As I was being wheeled out to the recovery room, I saw why my doctor didn't want to let my husband in. There was a pool of blood on the floor, on the table, everywhere. It was like a murder crime scene.
It was a placental abruption
I was asking the nurse every five minutes what had happened to my daughter. Nobody was telling me anything. She kept on telling me that my doctors would come in and explain.
After a few hours, my OB came in with the neonatal pediatrician. My OB told me that I had given birth prematurely because I had a placental abruption — the placenta had separated from my uterus.
She theorises that since the placenta separated from the uterus, the baby went into distress because of the lack of oxygen. She also said that my baby had her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. Apart from all of that, she said that I also had high blood pressure.
"You're very lucky," she told me. "If you were discharged and this happened at home, you might not have made it — your baby might not have made it, too."
I lost two litres of blood, she added. So I had to have a blood transfusion.
She had my blood in her lungs
Next up was the paediatrician. She was called in for my baby's case because she was the best neonatologist in the hospital. I was happy that a specialist was overseeing her case, but I was bracing for the bad news. They wouldn't have called in the big guns if everything was alright.
Basically, she said, my baby had drowned in my blood. Instead of my milk, she had ingested my blood. She also had my blood in her lungs.
She was in critical condition when she was brought to the NICU, but was stable at the time.
"How many days will she be in the NICU?" I asked. I wasn't grasping the gravity of the situation. The information wasn't sinking in. I thought she'd be out in a week, two weeks at most.
The doctor explained the trauma that my baby went through. Aside from being born prematurely, the NICU team had to rule out all possible complications that may arisen. If she recovered well, she'd be out by her supposed due date — around six to eight weeks.
The news was a huge blow. I felt weak. They told me to rest, but all I did was pray.
Read up on breastfeeding a premature baby
By the time I was wheeled in to my room, it was almost midnight. The room was big, but we didn't have any visitors. No baby to visit and welcome into this world. There was a recliner chair that no one was using. No baby to nurse.
While waiting for my doctors to let me go down to the NICU, I searched for ways to improve my baby's health. All of the sites I came across said the same thing: breastfeeding.
According to studies, the breastmilk from a mum who gave birth prematurely is different from a mum who gave birth full term. My breast milk was supposedly packed with more nutrients to help my baby grow and develop.
Somehow my body knew that I had given birth before I was due and it would somehow compensate and work to keep my baby alive outside the womb.
I immediately called the hospital's lactation consultant. She taught me how to hand express. I was lucky because my milk came in immediately. I stored the colostrum in syringes.
Nice to finally meet you
Finally, the doctors allowed me to see my daughter. My husband brought me to the NICU.
I wasn't expecting what I saw. Weighing 1.6 kilos, my baby had all sorts of tubes coming out of her — a tube to help her breathe, a tube in her mouth to get my blood out from her stomach, and a tube to pump in medicine. She had all sorts of monitors hooked on to her.
I gave the nurses the colostrum. They told me she wasn't allowed to take milk yet, not until they got all the blood from her stomach and lungs out. I felt so helpless because I couldn't help my baby. But I was determined more than ever to get more milk for her.
She looked so tiny. Her newborn nappies looked two sizes too big. Her head was as big as my fist. She was the length of my forearm. The doctors said the only reason why she didn't look super thin was because she had edema.
I didn't know what to feel. I couldn't even hold her. It took a lot from me not to cry. I didn't want her to see me bawling my eyes out. And I didn't want her to feel how sad and worried I was.
I was discharged the following day. As I got inside our car, I felt the weight of what my daughter and I went through. It was so hard to accept that I was going home without my baby.
All the feelings I had been bottling up exploded into wailing. My husband couldn't do anything but hold me.
A few days later, my baby was well enough to be placed in an isolate, a kind of incubator. I was also allowed to carry her. I was told that Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC) — skin-to-skin contact with the baby — would really help the baby recuperate. And so, every day we did KMC. Somehow I think she knew I was her mum.
She wasn't allowed to take milk yet, but it didn't stop me from expressing milk. I didn't want my supply to go down. And so I expressed milk every three hours, as often as a newborn would feed. I had so much milk stored, I filled up our freezer. I was able to share some of my milk with my daughter's NICU "classmates," 28-weeker preemie twins.
From 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., I'd be at the NICU. I would go home to eat dinner and be with my family. But my heart would stay in the NICU.
After two weeks, my daughter was finally allowed to drink milk. On our first try, she was able to latch instantly. She was supposed to nurse in ten-minute intervals, but she'd get so mad, whenever we'd stop nursing. She was one hungry baby! I guess two weeks of no milk will make you hangry.
The Deadly Meningitis
One morning, I went in to the NICU and the nurse reported that my baby was lethargic. She didn't want to nurse and just wanted to be carried.
The doctors said she had meningitis.
Since she had just taken antibiotics the previous week, they had to give her the strongest antibiotics they had.
Thank God, the meds worked.
But it wasn't the only hurdle she had to go through. She had jaundice, too. She had phototherapy twice.
Her baby book listed premature birth complications like respiratory distress syndrome, anemia, and apnea.
My baby had to have her eyes checked for retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). She had a heart ultrasound and a brain ultrasound. She had blood transfusions, too.
Through it all, we nursed and we did KMC. I didn't know how else to help her.
After a few weeks, I walked inside the NICU and she wasn't there. I thought something had happened. The nurse wanted to surprise me with the news that she was transferred to the Intermediate Care Unit (IMCU) next door — which meant that she didn't need constant monitoring anymore. We weren't out of the woods yet, but we were getting there.
During our stay at the IMCU, we noticed that her stomach was getting bigger. We thought that it was because she was feeding a lot. The nurses had already nicknamed her "Madam" because she demanded milk all the time. Sometimes she would get cranky when I was late visiting her. She cried inconsolably until I arrived.
A pediatric surgeon was called in. He said my daughter had Hirschprung's disease — a condition wherein the lower part of the colon didn't form properly, making it hard for the baby to poop naturally. He said that she needed surgery.
At this point, she was just a month old. She hasn't gained that much weight. I wasn't sure she could survive the surgery.
It was a surgery that she needed, so we gave our consent. Our faith was put to test. Thankfully, she made it.
A few days later, she was back in the IMCU. The monitors were taken off of her. Every now and then, I'd check if she was still breathing. I wasn't used to not having the monitor flickering and the machine beeping as if telling me that she was still alive.
She was recovering well and fast. The neonatologist told us we just had to wait for her to regulate her own body temperature and we'd be able to take her home.
April Fool's Day Surprise
On April 1, April Fool's Day, I went into the NICU, and again, my baby wasn't in her usual spot. Before I panicked, the nurse led me to a bassinet in the corner. There she was. She didn't need an incubator anymore because she could already regulate her body temperature.
And so, after 41 days in the NICU, "Madam" was set to go home. Along with her discharge papers, we were given her 99-page medical record.
As we went out of the hospital, I promised her that she would never have to be alone, ever... and that she could have all the breastmilk she wanted.