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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Breastfeeding through Critical Illness and Recovery Mothers' Stories
Natalie Ainge, Saltaire, Bradford, UK
Photo: Natalie & Bruce


My baby boy, the biggest of my three children, was born peacefully at home in water, only 19 months after I’d had a traumatic cesarean. His birth was everything I had dreamed of and our whole family was on a high.

I breastfed our first two children and planned to breastfeed him too. With our first baby, I battled on with no support, suffering from Raynaud’s Phenomenon [vasoconstriction of extremities due to cold or emotional stress] in the early weeks. With our second I had to figure out how to breastfeed after an unplanned cesarean. It hadn’t been plain sailing with either and, as it turned out, it wasn’t going to be easy with our third either. However, this time, I had the women I’d met at my local La Leche League group on my side.

Two days after the birth, in unrelated circumstances, I became critically ill with septicemia, which led to multiple organ failure, and I had a large open abdominal wound from emergency surgery. I was in intensive care on life support machines with tubes and wires everywhere. I was the most critically ill person in the hospital, on a ventilator providing 90% oxygen. My kidneys completely shut down, my body swelled and I had yellow skin and eyes. My husband was informed my condition was not improving. I was kept heavily sedated in an induced coma most of the time and on lots of medication and pain relief. After a hazy few days my first thoughts on regaining consciousness were, “Where is my baby?” and “Get me a breast pump—I need to express” as I knew my baby wasn’t with me and that he would need feeding.

The members of the intensive care staff were not keen to support me with expressing milk for my baby. There were delays and excuses in getting a hospital pump. The hospital breastfeeding supporter was turned away. The doctors considered breastfeeding would be just another stress to put on me and it was not on their agenda for helping me regain my health. It was also recorded that the doctors felt my husband was pressuring me to express milk, but this was not the case at all. In my mind, there was no alternative. I had to follow my instinctive desire to breastfeed. My baby would be nourished, comforted and feel loved with my body and my milk, if not right now, then he would be when I got better. Breastfeeding is the basis from which I have grown to be a mother—it is how I parent my children. I had been given a second chance at life and our nursing relationship would give me strength in my journey through critical illness to recovery.

I had been given a second chance at life and our nursing relationship would give me strength in my journey through critical illness to recovery.

Eventually I received an electric pump, but I had never used one before and neither had the nurses. My husband brought in my hand pump from home and I started to express colostrum. I couldn’t sit up to collect it so I had to just let it run down my sides. I mopped it up with tissues. My baby was unable to drink it anyway because of the numerous medicines I was taking.

I had expressed frozen colostrum during my pregnancy and my husband had given this to our baby. Once word of our situation got around, my baby was also fed on donated expressed milk from kind mothers. I had never considered the possibility of using donated milk before the birth. My husband decided while I was unconscious that he thought it’s what I would have wanted and what was best. I’m happy he did. A lady collecting milk for us also offered to nurse our baby. We were so grateful for this chance to help him learn how to latch on and experience the comfort of nursing.

Being supported by La Leche League and taking on the task of maintaining an all but exclusive breast milk diet for our baby helped my husband stay strong in this period, and gave him something to focus on, while he and our new baby developed a strong father and son bond.

After 12 days in intensive care I was moved to a ward and still needed lots of treatment including physiotherapy to learn to breathe unassisted and walk again, dressing changes for the wound on my tummy, dialysis treatments and blood transfusions. I was on restricted fluids as I hadn’t passed urine in two weeks. I was “pumping and dumping” but I could see my milk supply increasing. My aim was to express at least twice a day but if I was too tired or felt too poorly I didn’t. I was unable to get out of bed and had to ask the nurses to pour the milk down the sink and wash my pump for me. I tried to hold my baby skin to skin but I wasn’t strong enough to hold him and I was in a lot of pain. I wasn’t able to see him every day, which was heartbreaking.

Finally after three weeks, my baby was able to have my milk. I sat up to feed him and he latched on perfectly. It was a happy day. Unfortunately, the next day I was rushed back to intensive care as my lungs had overloaded with fluid and I was back on the ventilator. Ten liters of fluid were filtered from my body overnight. I was very happy to wake up the next day as I did not expect to. I felt set back again with all the tubes, wires, and medicines. This time though I wasn’t as poorly as before, and communicating by writing, I asked for my pump again and started expressing while still on the ventilator. A doctor said to me, “No one is going to think any less of you if you don’t breastfeed,” but comments like this just washed over me. Why would I make less of an effort for my baby?

After another three days in ICU I was moved to the cardiology ward, where I was told my heart function had been impaired, and the medication that the doctors were suggesting I take meant that I would never be able to give my baby my milk. I cried a lot that night and declined the medication until I could have a discussion with the consultant the following day. Declining the medication caused the doctors to raise concerns over my life expectancy, quality of life and the possibility of causing further damage to my heart, although they could not confirm that the medication would, in fact, actually improve my health. Having no idea what this would mean for the future I decided I would not have the medication for the time being and see how I managed. I had come so far and been through so much, I wasn’t ready to give up yet so I followed my gut instinct. I just could not imagine our future without the bond and special relationship that comes with nursing a baby through his first years, especially after our rough start. My husband agreed that the quality and enjoyment of life that our family would have, with me breastfeeding our baby, was very important. Feeding our baby was keeping me going, keeping me healing and getting me ready to go home to my children and husband.

Over the next four weeks my milk supply increased slowly. My two hand pumps were sent to the children’s ward to be steam sterilized every day. (The children’s ward provided sterilizing bags and they had a microwave dedicated to sterilizing baby feeding equipment.) I had a job on my hands explaining this to staff at every shift change on the six different wards that I visited. I got into a routine of expressing first thing in the morning and last thing at night. The milk was labeled and stored in the ward fridge and would be collected by my relatives the next day and taken home to my baby. I eventually wrote a page and put it on the front of my care plan in my hospital notes. Many of the staff told me (particularly because of the type of wards I was a patient on) they just didn’t see breastfeeding mothers and didn’t know how to care for me. Since they had no knowledge of breastfeeding, it was necessary for me to educate them.

My husband brought me sterile bottles and bags to send the milk home in. My baby had my milk at home from a bottle topped off with donated milk while my supply slowly increased. When he visited (maybe three times a week) I always tried to give him a feed at the breast. After eight weeks I was sending home 20 oz of milk per day.

Finally after two months in hospital I came home to my family. I needed a lot of care at home for another month but I just kept trying to feed my baby on cue as long as I felt well enough. He did not have any issues with latching on, going from bottle to breast. My first achievement was feeding up to lunch time, but then my supply dwindled as the day wore on and he needed a bottle afternoon and evening. A few days later I fed him until bed time and finally, at 12 weeks, I was able to feed him all day and night. It took a couple of days to sustain this but I achieved a dream I never thought possible, exclusively breastfeeding my baby boy. I will always be amazed that despite being so close to death, with multiple organs having shut down, my breasts were still making milk for my baby, and I was able to exclusively breastfeed him so soon into my recovery.

I will always be amazed that despite being so close to death, with multiple organs having shut down, my breasts were still making milk for my baby, and I was able to exclusively breastfeed him so soon into my recovery.

Continued determination, support from my husband and family, my LLL Leader, Becky, my doula and my peers made this possible. It was a team effort from the women of Yorkshire who donated their milk for our baby and filled our freezer with food for our family and were a source of strength, love, support, knowledge and encouragement through everything.

After a few weeks of exclusive breastfeeding it felt like we had never been apart. He smelled like my baby and I recognized him as my own. Eighteen months on and we are still breastfeeding and very happy. I have spoken to the hospital staff about my experience and they are now working to keep babies with their breastfeeding mothers and ensuring they get the right support should they need to stay in the general hospital. I am personally helping to set up another circle of support for families in my area. I have a second chance at life and La Leche League has given me a new purpose.


Can I Breastfeed My Baby If I am Sick?

LLLGB When a Mother is Ill


  1. I have recently been through a similar, but less severe episode with my first child. 2 days after delivery I became septic and deteriorated, ending up on ICU. I was also determined to breastfeed and have since managed to get back home to exclusive breastfeeding at 5 weeks following recovery and surgery.
    The only reason I managed this was due to amazing support from the Leeds St James Hospital midwife team and the provision of equipment and education on expressing in various forms. The ICU staff were not able to help much, but the midwifery team came to visit and help establish a routine to build up my milk supply.
    I would like to encourage others who want to breastfeed in this situation not to give up and hope that you get the support that I did.

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