Struggling to latch – Amy’s story

Trying to breastfeed turned out to be a surprisingly difficult part of Amy’s neonatal journey as her milk supply was slow in coming in and her baby, James, had trouble latching.

I had never given too much thought to breastfeeding. I’d read it was exhausting but I assumed that I would do it because I thought that all my baby would need to do was latch, drink and repeat. But since when was anything to do with a baby so simple?!

My son was diagnosed with severe intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR) at 30 weeks. After five weeks of what felt like constant visits to the maternity unit for monitoring, we were told that our very little man would be joining us immediately. It was difficult to be told that our baby was better out than in – it felt like it was just too soon.

The birth and the hours – days even – afterwards felt like a complete out of body experience. James was born at just over 3lbs, and after a quick peek he was whisked off to the NICU while I was wheeled into recovery with my bewildered husband following closely behind. I was handed a couple of syringes with an instruction pamphlet on how to express for colostrum and we were left to it.

I didn’t know what to expect from this first session of expressing, but I certainly imagined I’d be able to produce more than a few drops. I always feel a bit sad when I think of my husband helping me scoop up that tiny amount with the syringe.

My son was born tiny and hungry. The one thing I felt I could do for him was give him nourishment. So, I went from not really thinking about breastfeeding to thinking about it constantly, especially during the time I was away from James. My alarm was set to every two and a half hours to try to establish my milk supply, and even though it was only two days before we could attempt a latch it truly felt like a lifetime.

One morning at 5am, a midwife popped into my room and explained that the neonatal team had requested I go down. There is no more terrifying a sentence! It turned out that James was quite distressed and nothing was calming him, so they thought perhaps being with me would help.

He was taken out of his incubator, placed on my chest, and one of the nurses suggested I try feeding him. It worked! He stopped crying as soon as he was placed on my chest, and although he didn’t latch quite right, he knew what to do immediately. I like to think he got a few drops anyway! It was one of the best moments I can remember from James’ time in the neonatal unit.

From that moment, we were able to try getting him to latch before every tube-feed. After that, every time I walked from the maternity ward to the neonatal unit, midwives would tell me that they could see my supply increasing and that really helped boost my confidence.

Another night, after we had moved out of intensive care into high dependency and the unit was generally quieter, one nurse spent a good hour with me explaining how to tell if James was actually taking milk, showing me different feeding positions, and telling me the trick of tickling his chin if he started to fall asleep. I will never forget her patience with both of us.

I was also fortunate that my mother-in-law was a midwife at the special care unit in Dundee. She came armed with nipple shields and showed me a variety of feeding positions which I used throughout my entire feeding journey. Their support meant a lot because, on the whole, the unit was too big and busy for nurses to spend significant one-on-one time with me to support me in breastfeeding.

I will always remember being in transitional care with James. During the day there was the hustle and bustle of partners and doctors and nurses. But during the night it was just the four of us and our babies. The quiet sounds of the little ones starting to gurn, mums gently soothing them as we each persevered with feeding. And then with the babies finally sleeping, the relentless buzz of the breast pumps as we set our alarms and expressed around the clock to ensure a constant supply.

That memory is bittersweet: thinking of it takes me right back into those moments where my eyes were burning with tiredness and the frustration I felt at not producing enough milk, and the worry I felt over whether James was getting enough milk to put on weight. But there’s nothing more beautiful either, I think, than mums working away in the dead of night to ensure their babies are looked after despite the most difficult of circumstances.

My breastfeeding journey with James ended after around 4 months, largely due to my frustration and exhaustion about not being able to produce enough milk to keep up with his appetite. Given his tiny size, I felt more assured feeding him with a bottle as it meant I could see how much milk he was taking.

Having done more research since James was born, I now know that cluster feeding (have lots of short feeds over a few hours) is totally normal. It didn’t mean that he wasn’t getting enough milk. In fact, it helps to establish your supply. And I also wish I’d known about alternatives to feeding from the breast like cup feeding, where your baby sort of licks at the milk. But what my feeding journey taught me most of all was the need for patience and perseverance. If I was to go through it all again, that’s definitely what I would arm myself with.