Warning: this post will most definitely be extremely long and quite possibly very jumbled. I know most of you probably don’t care about all the details of my breastfeeding journey, but my experience is very close to my heart and I want to record it for myself as much as anything.
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I’ve been wanting to share about my breastfeeding experience for several months, but it’s such a loaded topic for me that every time I sit down to write I just feel overwhelmed and end up putting it off. Breastfeeding the twins really has been an experience that has required so much of my mind and body, and while the physical aspect has been very difficult at times, the mental part of it has been the most challenging.
When I was pregnant I knew I wanted to breastfeed, and I felt really determined about it. Hearing so many stories of how difficult it can be, I would have told you that I was open to the fact that it might not work for me, but when it came down to it I would have done literally anything to make it work.
Since Linc and Viv were almost 7 weeks early, when they were born I only got a quick glimpse of them before they were taken away to the NICU. I had known for a few weeks that my dreams of skin to skin time and of nursing them right away were not going to happen, and while I mourned the loss of that dream, the babies being healthy was of course my biggest concern. In the final weeks before bedrest, Jon and I took a class on breastfeeding and I read parts of a book or two, so I felt fairly confident about the basics (how to get baby to latch etc.). I really wasn’t that worried about it. What I didn’t research at all was how to have success nursing babies who were in the NICU.
In the moments after they were born, I was taken back to my room and within minutes, the hospital’s lactation consultant was at my bedside with a pump and a schedule. By the time she left I felt like I had a pretty good grip on how to work the pump and somewhat of an idea on how often/when to do it etc. But I was so distracted by wanting to see my babies, that I didn’t really put a ton of thought into it.
In the hours and days following their birth I clung to pumping as a way to do something for my babies. I could hold them for brief periods of time, change their diapers, feed them a bottle and sit beside their bed day and night, but otherwise the feeding tube and the nurses took care of their needs. Not only did pumping give me something I could do for them, but it gave me something to do. Having babies in the NICU was the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. It just felt so wrong that they had to be down the hall from me (I was able to stay in the hospital for all but a few days of their NICU stay). That I couldn’t run and pick them up and cuddle them anytime I wanted. So, pumping was something I could focus on. It kept me busy and on a schedule, which I think I needed.
It took about 4 days for my milk to come in, and that was one of the best days. I’ll never forget how it felt to see that white milk collecting in the bag, and even though it was probably less than an ounce, I felt on top of the world. But within a few days after that, I began to worry that I just wasn’t producing enough. The babies were being given formula and my breastmilk was being used as a supplement. Although, the NICU was adamant that the formula was a necessary part of keeping them growing and it would have been a battle to have eliminated it anyway. But I knew the twins would be coming home soon, and I was determined to be able to produce enough milk to exclusively nurse them.
On the second day that we were in the NICU, a nurse named Winter who I will never forget, asked me if I wanted to try nursing them. Until that point, I was inexperienced enough that I didn’t think I was allowed to try and nurse them, and I had never realized I could ask to do it. So, when Winter suggested I try I was elated. I’ll never forget her or the first moment I ever got to try and nurse my babies. I remember looking at Jon with the biggest smile plastered on my face. I was speechless and so full of joy. I had never felt anything so magical.
In the beginning, I was allowed to try and nurse them for a couple of feedings each day, but most of the time we’d end up finishing with a bottle or the feeding tube. As the days went by and the babies got stronger, I was able to try and nurse them more and more. They were so tiny and still not super strong, so it was very slow going. Linc was a bit stronger and did a little better than Viv, but it was a rare feeding that I didn’t have to supplement. But it didn’t really matter to me. All I cared about was that we were trying. And we were making progress….slowly but surely.
17 days after Linc and Viv came into our lives, we got to take them home. It was one of the best days of our lives. The following weeks found me still pumping like a mad woman. Starting in our second week in the NICU and continuing once we came home, I was on a crazy rigorous pumping schedule to try and get my supply up. I was pumping about every 2.5 hours throughout the day and night. In addition, I was doing a cluster pumping for three hours in the morning and then again in the evening. It was insane trying to stick to the pumping schedule and also trying to keep nursing the twins for at least part of every feeding. Add in diaper changes and washing pump parts, and I literally had no existence outside of it all. But I was so determined, and it was so worth it to me.
The babies both steadily got better at nursing, but Vivian was just so small; so for a long time I would nurse them both, then pump, then feed Vivi a bottle. I was nursing them one at a time at this point and they each would take about 45 minutes, so by the time I got done with the whole process it would be almost time to start it all over again. It really did take a toll on me physically and mentally. Just the lack of sleep alone was so difficult. With the babies being preemies, it wasn’t until they were 4 months old that our doctor allowed us to let them sleep at night without waking up to eat. I honestly don’t know how I lasted 4 months getting up around the clock, but I did it.
Finally, after weeks of this routine, I decided I just had to start feeding them together. Vivian was getting stronger all the time, and while they were still taking 45 minutes to eat I was having to give her a bottle less and less often. So, I set out one day to figure out how to feed them at the same time using my twin nursing pillow, and it literally revolutionized my day. Instead of taking an hour and a half to feed them individually, it took me 45 minutes total. And while I really missed that one-on-one time, there was no arguing that it was better for everyone for me to feed them together.
But the struggles didn’t end there. From day one we were concerned about the babies weight gain. It was painfully slow, and I was constantly worried about my supply. We ended up getting our own scale, and we would literally weigh them every single night to see whether or not they had gained (dumbest idea ever – I do NOT recommend this!). While I enjoyed the process of nursing my babies very much, the stress of whether they were getting enough and whether they were growing quickly enough had me in an almost constant anxious state. I would wake up worrying about it and go to bed worrying about it.
At our 2 month appointment, our pediatrician at the time told us that we needed to start supplementing because he really wanted to see them catching up to the average growth curve already. And even though I was scared about whether or not they were growing quickly enough, I just wasn’t ready to give up. I truly felt that if I started supplementing I would never regain the ability to nurse them exclusively. I felt that breast milk was the best nourishment for them, but mostly I was enamored with the act of nursing them. I didn’t want to lose that after having fought so hard to get to the place we were. So, we got a second opinion. Our next pediatrician seemed more supportive and understanding of my breastfeeding goals, and she didn’t think it was necessary to supplement yet. I was so relieved and I left that appointment feeling on top of the world. From that point on, every check-up went well. Even though the twins weren’t catching up to the average curve yet, they were maintaining their own curve, which our pediatrician was satisfied with. But despite her giving us her encouragement and approval, I still worried day and night.
Another major struggle we encountered was a case of thrush. The lactation consultant and our pediatrician were never absolutely certain that we had it, but my symptoms pointed that way so they treated us for it regardless. I was in so much pain every time I nursed for about 2 weeks. Jon would have to sit beside me and let me squeeze his hand while the babies latched; the first few minutes were excruciating. The lactation consultant had told me that the babies both had high arched palates, so I honestly didn’t think there was anything that could be done about the pain. Finally, one day I admitted to myself that the pain was bad enough that I might have to stop nursing completely if something couldn’t be done. It hurt during feedings, before feedings, after feedings….pretty much 24/7 I was in pain. So I made another appt. with my lactation consultant. Upon her recommendation, we treated both the babies for thrush, boiled everything that touched me or their mouths after every feeding for days, I took an antibiotic, and I also used a cream after every feeding. The thrush (if it was ever there) cleared up within a few days, but to this day I still use the cream after every single feeding. If I don’t, the pain comes back; it really is an absolute miracle cream. After that appointment I also started doing everything imaginable for my supply. I began drinking 4 cups of Mother’s Milk tea each day, taking 12 fenugreek capsules a day, took a liquid tincture called Mother Love More Milk Special Blend 4 times a day, and ate oatmeal every morning. I did this for about 2 months, and just last week I quit it all cold turkey. I wanted to see if it really was even helping anymore or if my body had just become immune to it. So far I don’t think I really see a drop, but I’m watching it closely. The only thing I’m doing now in addition to nursing is pumping after their morning feeding and hand expressing after every other feeding. I’ve found that hand expressing is the best way for me to get any extra milk at all.
I know without at doubt that the way we feed our babies is not the most important part of being a mom. Even though science now says breast milk is technically best, breastfeeding is not necessarily the best route for every family. There are so many other factors involved that are different to every mom and every baby. Even though I don’t have any judgment or negative feelings toward moms who don’t breastfeed (I was a formula fed baby!), I personally was so attached to the idea of nursing the babies exclusively that I could barely see straight. Any night that they had a loss I would get so upset and become so stressed out at the thought of having to start supplementing. Part of my stress stemmed from the fact that I really believe breast milk is best form them, part of it was from how much money I knew formula would cost for both babies, but most of it was just the loss of something that I held so dear.
Looking back over the last 8 months, I can see how in some ways nursing made life a lot harder. For 8 months, I’ve rarely been able to go more than 3 hours without nursing or pumping, which means I can never get a break or get away. I barely make enough milk for both babies, and I’m not able to pump any extra, so the small freezer stash that carried over from pumping in the NICU (replaced by new pumped milk when that milk was bottle fed) is just enough to be away for one feeding here and there. For months I was sleep deprived beyond belief because I was the only one who could feed them (or I would have had to get up and pump anyway).
But I wouldn’t change anything. Aside from the occasional concern about weight gain, nursing has gotten so easy. The twins empty me in about 7 minutes flat now and those minutes are the best of my day. I LOVE nursing. I have given my body and my life to it since June 19th, and I would do it over again in a heartbeat. I plan to nurse the twins until they are a year old, and I’m definitely considering continuing at least for awhile beyond that. I do regret becoming so fixated on their weight gain. If I could do it again, I would NOT have weighed them every night, and I would have just taken my doctor’s word for it when she said they were doing fine. And while I have spent hours praying about the twins growth and eating, I would have tried a lot harder to really give my concerns to God and trust him and his plan for us.
If we are blessed with another baby, I will definitely plan to nurse again. And I hope that I’ll be able to carry our next baby to full-term and have those precious first minutes nursing him/her in the delivery room. And I hope that will make the rest of our nursing journey much easier than it has been with preemie twins. In the same way that my delivery was not the delivery I had dreamed of, neither has our breastfeeding journey been. But we’ve toughed it out, and it has made us stronger. And even though our story is not what I envisioned it to be, it is our story. I am so proud of myself for being committed and for sticking with it through the hard times. I’m thankful that things are easier now, and I’m so grateful that I still get to spend time nursing my babies every day. I don’t take one second of it for granted.