Tube feeding, bottle feeding and breastfeeding - Anna's Story

Anna’s baby Drake first had to be tube-fed, then bottle-fed with expressed milk and formula top-ups before finally Anna’s dream of breastfeeding her baby came true when he was nearly 6 months old.

We were unaware just how common premature birth was until it happened to us. I was exactly 35 weeks pregnant with our first child when my waters broke and two days later, our son, Drake, was born.

Although five weeks early, he was a good weight, at 5lbs 12oz, and when he was checked over by a neonatal doctor, they were happy with his condition. And because our hospital had a “transitional care” ward, where we could stay with Drake and receive a bit more attention than the regular postnatal ward, he didn’t need to go into the NICU.

For his first feed, he was put on my chest, but he seemingly had no motivation to try to breastfeed. After 12 hours of Drake not showing any desire to feed himself, the executive decision was made to begin tube feeding. It was very upsetting to watch a tube being inserted down our tiny baby’s nose.

Drake started looking yellow and was having to have blood tests every four hours. His poor heels were looking mashed and scabbed from the continual blood tests but he hardly complained at the tube and the heel pricks; he just seemed to get on with it.

I tried to breastfeed at every opportunity, he would latch and take two or three sucks, but just wasn’t strong enough to get any milk. We were able to assist with his tube feeding - as upsetting as it was, it was still nice to be able to take an active role. I was doing lots of skin-to-skin, talking to lactation consultants, and we even tried finger feeding.

Every feed, we would wake him, try the breast, end up feeding him through the tube and then I would pump for half an hour to an hour. Having to do all of this meant that we only had an hour and a half break between each feed. This pattern continued for a few days, until my milk came in and he was latching much better, so the staff started to lower the volume of his tube feeds to encourage breastfeeding.

It was around this time that his jaundice got to a level that meant he needed phototherapy. The idea of the biliblanket didn’t seem so scary to us - we are both scientists and understand the entire process. But that did not prepare us for seeing our tiny baby on a glowing blue mat with a little eye mask which nearly covered his whole face. The most heart-breaking moment was the next day when the eye mask was removed and we saw that his face was all drawn in. His arms and legs were all scrawny and it brought us to tears. It really was the lowest part of our journey.

We couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel with regards to his feeding as he still wasn’t sucking and was often bringing up his tube feeds. We were told that he was potentially more premature than they originally thought, and his weight was plummeting - he had lost 14% of his bodyweight since he’d been born. This was when we felt we needed the most support as we were crumbling; we just didn’t know what to do. Every time the doctors and nurses switched over, there was a new plan.

It was at this point that we were introduced to a high-level NICU nurse who gave us some incredible advice. He told us he had seen many cases where the baby had to be bottle fed and then could breastfeed later on, including with his wife, and that it would probably be much better to do what we could to get back home and try again there as we would all feel less stressed, and there are breastfeeding support groups to fall back on.

With that in mind, we conceded to giving him a bottle of expressed breast milk with formula top-ups. At every feed, I tried him on the breast first, but resorted to pumping and bottle-feeding, which meant that my husband could feed him while I pumped. This continued for a few days and his progress came along in leaps and bounds. Within a few days we were allowed to leave the hospital without a tube. Although we had only been in the hospital for around two weeks, it felt like an eternity.

I continued to try breastfeeding at every feed, but kept having to resort to a bottle. A hands-free breast pump was a life-saver to continue my milk supply. I persevered with this routine and then one day, he suddenly was able to feed from the breast. He wasn’t strong enough to do it every feed so we did night feeds on the breast to start with and continued the bottle feeds and pumping during the day.

Slowly but surely, he was able to transition to being purely breastfed, just before he turned six months old. It was the most amazing feeling of accomplishment and happiness. Our tiny baby who couldn’t feed himself had finally gotten the strength, stamina and coordination to solely breastfeed. My husband felt a little sad that he couldn’t feed Drake anymore but it was so much easier to not have to prepare bottles and worry about having to sterilise and wash the pump equipment and his bottles, and I love breastfeeding Drake.

Drake is now nearly one year old and still having three breastfeeds a day. He is very mischievous, happy, cheeky and so very kind and generous. He now cruises and stands by himself, says “mumma” and “dada”, and is very good at problem-solving. We couldn't be more proud of him and we feel so lucky as this journey could have been so much worse.