In honor of NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) Awareness Month, I am sharing our NICU experience. It is because of the NICU that our daughter was successfully breastfed. More precisely, it was because of one tough but amazing NICU nurse. As a result of her efforts, our daughter successfully breastfed for 18 months, I then went on to breastfeed my middle son for 22 months, I am still nursing my youngest at 14.5 months, and have helped nourish 20 other children with my donated breastmilk.
Without the dedicated NICU nurses, my journey may have been entirely different. For their patience, caring, and tireless work I am eternally grateful.
This is our NICU story.
After a traumatic vaginal birth (details here) during which our debated 36- or 37-week gestation daughter coded and required resuscitation, then choked in the nursery, and experienced an unknown time period without oxygen, we were NICU parents.There were tests and physical exams, monitors and machines, jaundice concerns and lamentations over the physical and cognitive aftermath of our daughter’s oxygen deprivation. However, what I remember most vividly through the sleep-deprived memory haze is the breastfeeding battle. Despite having nursed well immediately after birth — the nurses noted the surprising amount of colostrum they discovered when our daughter choked — latching and nursing became a massive struggle once our daughter was admitted to the NICU.
Too weak and injured from the gruesome birth to walk independently to the NICU, every 1.5 hours I was wheeled from my room to my daughter’s bedside. I was engorged and each feeding worsened my pain and frustration. My breasts were sore and swollen. My child — bruised, puffy, and cone-headed from the birth — was incensed. I attempted to feed her for 30 minutes each time but always held her for an additional 15 minutes because I just couldn’t let go. This left me with only 90 minutes between feedings… day and night. Each feeding was the same: both of us crying, both of us agitated, both of us exhausted, both of us feeling helpless. What was supposed to be the most natural human experience was beyond us.
“Try sitting in the rocking chair,” the nurses encouraged, but even with two pillows beneath me, I could not shift or maneuver to simultaneously nurse and not inflame my vaginal wounds on the wooden chair. In our little curtained alcove in the chirping, bleating, whirring NICU, I awkwardly perched on my nest of pillows in the hard communal chair, feeling like a leaky, exhausted, bleeding, pummled version of the Princess and the Pea.
By day 2 I was able to cautiously walk from my room in the Maternity Ward to the NICU. There, I tried over and over to nurse. We used different chairs, different pillow arrangements, different positions. I’d prep myself with numbing spray and ice packs in my giant hospital-issue underwear before awkwardly waddle-shuffling through the ward to nurse my child.
Finally, one NICU nurse took the reins. She was a small middle-aged woman with short brown curls, glasses, and a palpable toughness about her. She was a force… she scared the crap out of me. Fortunately, the NICU gods smiled upon me, and this seasoned and calloused nurse identified with me. I reminded her of her own expectant daughter.
She suggested we try nursing in my room instead of in the NICU. “It would be less stressful for you,” she explained. She said she’d get the doctor’s approval. She did.
Starting that evening, every 1.5 hours, a nurse would unhook my daughter temporarily from her monitors, wheel my daughter’s clear plastic bassinet into my hospital room and 45 minutes later, my husband would wheel her back to the NICU. This was a more comfortable option, but not entirely successful. My daughter could latch but not for long.
By 3am, things fell apart. Days of little rest and no REM sleep left my husband and me in an irritated zombie state. The crying baby, the breast pain, the swollen everything, the frustration, the exhaustion, the ignorance, the fear, the trauma… it all bubbled over. It was too much. We fought. I don’t even remember why or over what. No one won.
When the sun rose, the tough-but-kind NICU nurse wheeled my daughter into my room. She was checking on me. I told her I was having feeding trouble. She offered to help. For the first time in my prudish life, I didn’t care at all that a stranger was manhandling my breast. I just wanted relief… to feed my child for longer than 2-minute stretches.
Repositioning, compressing, unlatching and relatching… we worked to find a solution. “You’re engorged,” she explained. “You have so much milk that your daughter cannot effectively latch. It’s like trying to latch onto an overfilled balloon. Then, once she does latch, she’s trying to drink from a fire hose.” She handed me a nipple shield, she mixed formula in a tiny dish, and used a syringe to apply two droplets on the tip of the shield. “Try this.” She moved and squished pillows, positioned my daughter just so… success!
The nurse then taught me how to hand-express a bit of milk in order to coat the tip of the nipple shield. “She won’t always need this,” she said, “but it helps her now.”
Every feeding, I’d squeeze my Shrek-like preeclampsia feet into my previously roomy sandals, ice and numb my sewn-together nether regions, waddle-shuffle across the ward to the NICU with my sitting pillows under my arm, scrub from fingertip to elbow in the communal NICU sink, close the curtain to our NICU alcove, arrange my pillows in the wooden rocking chair, carefully lower myself into my nest, express a bit of milk, use one drop to help suction the nipple shield to my breast and two drops to coat the shield tip, signal to my exhausted husband to hand me our black-and-blue daughter, latch our daughter onto my breast, feed her, unlatch her, burp her, snuggle her, hand her to my husband to place her in the plastic bassinet, clean the nipple shield in the communal sink, and waddle-shuffle her back to the NICU with my pillows under my arm.
By day 4, we had developed a rhythm. We were also on our last day in the hospital. “You will be discharged today,” explained the NICU nurse. My heart sank. “I will try to get your daughter discharged too.” My husband and I were terrified. In my mind, exiting that hospital without my daughter after having experienced that delivery would mortally wound me. It was an inconceivable option. It was a non-option.
Test results poured in that day. The formerly-scary NICU nurse reviewed each one. Jaundice was a sticking point but our daughter was borderline. The nurse briefed us in our curtained alcove as I breastfed. She prepped us for newborn home care because she was determined to send us home with our baby. She did not want one thing delaying us. Not one checkmark standing in our way. She was my NICU mama bear.
My husband and I, with sleep-deprived, first-time-parent minds, couldn’t process the information. We simply nodded and grunted. Then came the pediatrician assessment. This was the deciding moment. If he didn’t sign off, our daughter stayed.
The NICU nurse promised to call us in as soon as the pediatrician got there. She did.
As the bald-headed, towering, gruff pediatrician made his rounds, the nurse whispered to us not to worry. That she’d make this happen. She did.
At every pause she insinuated that our daughter was capable of going home. After every question asked of her, she lead to the logical next step of discharge. Having completed his assessment, the burly doctor exhaled a deep sigh and a pensive grumble. “She can go.”
The NICU nurse made it happen. She made it all happen. That day, the three of us went home together. From the bottom of my heart, thank you, Louise!