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Who Cries Over Spilled Milk?

By Shalmeka Sweet

I always knew I wanted to breastfeed my child. However, my plans for breastfeeding my daughter were almost derailed after my daughter was born 10 weeks early. I was admitted to the hospital after a routine doctor’s appointment. My prognosis changed daily and I wanted to be ready for the first latch upon her arrival. Being the planner that I am, I immediately called my insurance company to request a breast pump. I’d read pumping can increase milk production for premature births. The insurance company advised me I was eligible for a free breast pump. However, since I had not delivered the baby, they would need a note from the hospital stating my admittance due to prematurity. The hospital provided the letter but it was faced with opposition as they could not fathom my concern with obtaining a breast pump. They submitted the letter to the insurance company while I was a mother in-waiting to possibly deliver my daughter at any moment. After being admitted into the hospital for almost two weeks my daughter was born via emergency c-section due to heart rate irregularity. 

She was whisked off to NICU. I’d advised my husband and medical providers not to give her formula. I wanted her to have my milk. While in the recovery room, I felt defeated. My dream of my daughter latching on immediately after birth was robbed from me. Instead, here I lay in a room separated from my baby not knowing what is happening to her and concerned I would not be able to produce the milk my 2lb 14oz baby desperately needed to meet her NICU goals of eating and growing. My husband came to check on me and advised that the NICU nurse encouraged and highly recommended breast milk for my daughter’s recovery. I felt the pressure to produce now more than ever. I had determined I was not going to be defeated. I would not give up on my breastfeeding goals. I went into “Operation Milk” mode. I prayed for God to send my milk supply and I advised the nurse to have a breast pump waiting on me when I returned to my room. 

A few days prior to delivery, the lactation consultant provided a brief tutorial on how to use the pump. Please note she was rude and told me I would probably not be able to breastfeed if my daughter was born prematurely. I disregarded what she said and convinced myself I would figure it out once my daughter was born and that’s exactly what I did. I set up the equipment, latched on, and started pumping for 15-20 minutes every 30 minutes. On June 6, at 3:30 am I produced colostrum! 

I rushed my supply to the NICU and proudly gave it to the nurse and watched as she put it into my daughter’s feeding tube. I felt accomplished. I continued to pump every 30 minutes and boy did the flood gates open! At this point, I was producing 6 oz during one pumping session. One day while sitting in the NICU with my daughter, I realized it was my time to pump. I was so proud of this pumping session. I stopped the machine, unhooked the cords, untwisted the bottles from the suction cups, and placed the bottles on the tray. I reached to grab the bottles to screw on the cap and between my reach and balance I dropped one on the 3oz bottles and I stood in terror as I watched my milk spill onto the NICU floor. I attempted to bend down to clean up the mess but the pain from my c-section reminded me of my inability to wipe up the milk. In the words of Etta James “all I could do was cry.” I cried. No, I did the ugly cry. The one where your face frowns up, followed with snorting and shoulder bounce.  Again, I felt defeated and thought I would never get this breastfeeding thing right. I was trying so hard to produce milk outside of a latch. I felt like a horrible mother and let down to my daughter. I thought she would never reach her goals because of me. I was exhausted and in pain. I was trying to focus on my daughter’s daily goals, interpret NICU terminology and treatment plans. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Everything fell on my shoulders and the spilled milk reminded me of the pressure I felt to produce and conquer. 

Then I thought to myself “I just cried over spilled milk.” Who spills their breast milk? Obviously, me. Like, I literally cried over spilled milk! My milk. My daughter’s milk. The cliche I’ve heard my whole life has become my reality. Within that same thought, I realized what this cliche meant. I could not use the milk that had spilled on the floor, however, I had the power to reproduce what was wasted. At that moment, I turned my defeat into a victory. 

I continued to pump to provide milk for my daughter’s feeding tube and storage for future feedings. I was discharged from the hospital four days after my delivery without my daughter. She needed to continue with her goals of eating and growing. This was tough leaving her and also leaving access to a breast pump. The pump I requested from the insurance company had not arrived and the hospital did not loan pumps to take home. My daughter was on a feeding tube and had not developed her sucking reflex. I was caught again between a rock and a hard place. My only option was to come to the hospital every two hours to pump. So, we drove to the hospital every two hours for me to pump for seven days until my breast pump arrived from the insurance company. 

Once her feeding tube was removed, the nurses began to test my daughter’s sucking reflex for a week to prep her for a possible latching session. At first, she wasn’t sucking the pacifier or bottle and we almost had reinstate the feeding tube. I was warned premies tire out fast and need reminders with a gentle stroke to suck. They were right but we kept at it. I was nervous hoping she would take to my breast. On June 18, we had our first latch in the NICU and she latched on like a champ!  I think my face says it all.

When she latched it was as if she was saying thank you with every suck. This is what she and I longed for. To dine together. To be connected after another extended wait. It was the most fulfilling experience of my life and worth every obstacle of infertility, premature birth, nay-sayers, delayed breast pump, feeding tube, spilled milk, going to the hospital every 2 hours to pump, to finally connecting with the first latch fourteen days after her birth. Her suckling felt as if she was running into my arms after a long trip saying “I’m so glad to be home.” I continued to breastfeed, and pump between feeding for the first 31 months of her life. This experience will forever be the best journey of my life. 

Shalmeka Sweet

Host of the Beyond Conception Podcast

IG: @be_conception 

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