Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Updated February 2016
Lara Audelo, Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA
Premature birth, that which occurs before a baby is 37 weeks gestation, can occur even if a mother does “everything right.” Nearly one out of every eight babies is born prematurely, so it is something that we should really be aware of; if you did not have a premature baby, you probably know someone who did. Premature babies usually spend time in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and the length of the stay depends on how early they were born and how medically fragile they are.
Breastfeeding helps premies grow and catch up to where they need to be. When a mother gives birth prematurely her milk is specially designed to protect her baby and help him grow.
Motherhood ignites a certain amount of worry in all women; it’s an instinct we can’t turn off. When a woman gives birth to a premature baby, it can be an extremely emotional time and her mental state may be just as delicate as her tiny baby. Twenty years ago women with premies couldn’t reach out online and connect with other mothers who could understand their fears, nor was it as easy to access breastfeeding information that was specific to pre-term babies. Today, women can find support and life-saving information with just a few keystrokes. There is a helpful post here.
Krysta, the amazing mother of a micro-premie born in the second trimester, found the information she needed to save her son, and ultimately changed the course of maternity care in her local hospital.
When my husband and I decided to try for a baby, I was working as a graphic artist for a local paper, spending a lot of time bored and online. When pregnancy didn’t come easily, I joined a couple of online groups for women trying to conceive. After many months and fertility medications, I became pregnant.
I spent more time in my online groups once I found out we were expecting, and began reading articles and blogs, trying to absorb all the information I could. I kept randomly running into mention of “premie” matters, but ignored them since I knew I would have a healthy full-term, vaginal delivery, and that my baby would be put directly on my chest to nurse immediately.
At 25 weeks, my fingers began to swell and, without giving it much thought, I attributed it to normal pregnancy swelling. The next day I noticed dime-sized circles all over the side of my calf. I remembered indentations that failed to go away as being a sign of preeclampsia, so I called my sister, who worked in the same office, into my cubicle. She poked her finger in my leg, and it left at least a half-inch indentation. We called my doctor and our mother, and drove over an hour away to my doctor to check my blood pressure, which revealed I was just under the preeclampsia threshold. My doctor sent us home with a 24-hour urine test and strict instructions to take my blood pressure frequently. If it went over 150, I was to report to the hospital immediately.
The next morning my blood pressure was 168/98, so we followed the doctor’s advice, and drove in. I was admitted for a few hours’ observation, which led to an overnight stay. I had an ultrasound. The tech was really quiet and asked me how sure I was about my due date. She also pointed out that my baby had a “clover heart,” meaning the bottom two chambers of his heart appeared as one. After she left, the doctor on call came in and grilled me on how sure I was about my due date. I finally yelled, “I’m sure. I was on Clomid [a fertility drug]! I know exactly when he was conceived.” To which he replied, “Oh, he is a Clomid baby! They always run small. He has been about a week behind on all his ultrasounds” and he left the room.
The next morning my obstetrician told me, “There is something wrong with his heart and he is measuring about four weeks too small.” We went into shock. I moved to a nearby hospital better equipped to deal with our situation. Four days after arriving, my blood pressure spiked into the 200s. The next morning my protein levels were very high and I was told they would have to deliver my baby that day. An ultrasound revealed we were both heading toward a crash.
I had been told when I arrived at the hospital that a study had been done on 100 babies with his heart condition, who weighed less than 750 grams, and the survival rate past two weeks of age was zero. Our son weighed 590 grams (1lb 4oz). When my tiny son was handed to the catching nurse, and wrapped in a warm towel in the deafeningly silent operating room, she handed him off to a nurse practitioner who believed the “chances” didn’t matter. She believed that if he was fighting, we were going to fight too. She intubated him and rushed him to the NICU.
When I finally got to the postpartum floor, I immediately requested a breast pump. I remembered from somewhere that breast milk could be the difference between life and death for micro-premies. I hopped online, chatted on Facebook, and pumped. I collected drops of colostrum and sucked them into tiny 1cc syringes from the pump flanges. Thankfully, because of my time spent online, I knew that it was normal to produce such a small amount. I finally saw my son the next day. He was small and purple. He had such perfect little fingers and toes, and his head was about the size, shape, and feel of a perfectly ripe peach. I asked for permission to touch him. I sat next to his humidified isolate until I needed more pain meds. Back in my room, I pumped some more and asked more questions online. I loved getting immediate feedback from those who had been in a similar position.
I pumped every three hours for the next month. I couldn’t look at the pump or think of my son, as many pumping moms do when they pump, so I communed on Facebook and read. It wasn’t long before I was able to give advice to other moms of premies who were pumping their milk.
When my son was five months old, we were able to try to latch for the first time. It didn’t work out so well. I was so scared that it wouldn’t work that it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The next day, when I attempted again, I had chatted online with other moms about it and was much calmer. We were able to get him to latch, and he started nursing like a pro. Before he was slated to go home, the neonatologists decided to check my calorie output, so they would know how to supplement his diet to ensure he was getting sufficient calories. When the test came back, the doctor’s jaw nearly hit the floor, and she even asked if I might like to donate breast milk. What did the test show? My body was producing milk that had 31.5 calories per ounce, which meant I could stop all fortifier supplements that were being given to increase the calories in my son’s diet.
Due to our success, and his unexpected survival, our neonatologist was finally able to convince the hospital to get donor milk and use only human milk with all the micro-premies. From information posted online by one of my groups, I was able to show one of our doctors research on the benefits of nursing in the first 90 minutes. He loved the idea and now the hospital uses this information for other mothers.
I have calculated that I spent over 2,100 hours pumping during my son’s NICU stay, and still prefer to be online when nursing my daughter. It would have been a much lonelier and more stressful experience had I not had social media to turn to—I was able to connect with other moms who “got it.” It was the support I needed that no one in my “real” life could understand. I have also tried to encourage other moms to get into social media when it comes to breastfeeding, and I really love being able to pay it forward!
Krysta’s story is excerpted and adapted from The Virtual Breastfeeding Culture: Seeking Mother to Mother Support in the Digital Age published by Praeclarus Press The book shares 30 stories of mothers finding the breastfeeding support they needed online.
Lara Audelo CLEC is the mother of two young boys and the author of The Virtual Breastfeeding Culture: Seeking Mother to Mother Support in the Digital Age. She has been a part of the online breastfeeding community since 2007 and believes valuable online support can be critical to the breastfeeding success of mothers who might not have local support networks.
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