After waking from the general anaesthetic administered during my caesarean section, my first hazy memory is of fleeting visits from gentle, smiling nurses. They would open my gown, hold a plastic syringe to my nipple and squeeze out yellow liquid; barely drops would be captured but they'd run off into the corridors holding up the syringe with glee.
I had suffered from Acute Fatty Liver of Pregnancy and had received frozen blood plasma to clot my blood during my operation. Acute Fatty Liver of Pregnancy is a very rare life threatening complication that was until recently, universally fatal for women. I was lucky to be alive, and have a healthy baby. We had survived!
Esmé was born at 34 weeks weighing 5.2 lbs. Towards the end of my pregnancy I had started to feel very unwell. I was waking in the night almost hourly to drink endless glasses of water, I was almost incapable of doing a poo and I felt as though I was losing my mind. I remember sitting down in the mud when walking to feed my horses out of pure exhaustion. I felt as if I was fading away. One morning I woke up and could hardly move. I messaged my younger sister in the UK and she simply wrote, “You should go to hospital”. Upon arrival at A&E, the midwife began to monitor the baby’s heartbeat but it was momentarily dropping out. I don’t really remember much from this point. The doctors had warned Adam that during the delivery they may need to resuscitate our baby, but she was a strong little lady and was plucked out of me filling her lungs with air.
After the operation I went straight to intensive care. I unashamedly remember the relief I felt that the baby that had been making me so unwell had finally exited my body. After two days I was able to sit in a wheelchair. Adam took me for a visit to the NICU ward where Esmé was being looked after. I was aimed towards a young nurse tenderly cuddling a tiny bundle swaddled with a hat on and a tube going into her nose. The sweet and clearly capable girl proceeded to tell me with loving enthusiasm that she (with the help of Adam) had been looking after Esmé for the last three days, she told me that she loved cuddles and was strong and breathing brilliantly with no assistance. She was fond of her!
It must have been at that moment I was asked the question, “Do you plan to breastfeed?” My optimistic answer was a curious “Yes?”...I had no idea what I was getting myself into! I do however recall the warm and glad reception my answer provoked. I was in the club!
Esmé was too small to latch and was being fed formula through a tube in her nose. The colostrum visits had concluded and I was given a breast pump in my room with the instruction to strictly pump every three hours. Even through the night, the nurses would come in to wake me and say “Have you expressed?”, they would be rigging me up to the pump in my sleep. It was so weird; nothing came out when I pumped. The bottles would remain empty.
After a week had passed I was told my liver and kidneys had rapidly repaired almost to full health, and I could go home. We live 30 minutes from the hospital. Adam had gone back to work and I could hardly walk, let alone drive. I remember the panic on my mother’s face when she knew I had been told I could go. My milk still had not arrived and Esmé was too small to leave the hospital.
After a couple of hour’s uncertainty, the hospital’s family liaison officer explained they have secret rooms set aside within Auckland hospital for families in need. The emphasis on breastfeeding at this stage was huge. It was treated with such respect and importance but I had started to loose faith in my empty breasts. By now, Esmé could suck and we would start every three hourly feed with ten minutes sucking followed by formula syringed through the tube that was in her nose, then skin to skin and twenty minutes on the breast pump machine for me. The other husbands in the NICU would hurry in and out with huge bottles of expressed milk. I'd see the mums feeding, pumping and the milk flowing. One doctor mentioned to me that my milk may never arrive and I should get my baby onto a bottle and go home so that we could carry on with our lives. I had started to learn the benefits of breastfeeding and I really wanted it for Esmé and I. Would it ever happen for us? My breasts had grown from an A cup to a C cup but still not a drip of milk.
That day when Adam arrived at the hospital after work he had a carrier bag holding three tins of sardines. “You need to eat this” he said, “I’ve read that it will make your milk come”. He took a shiny white plastic hospital bowl and mashed up the contents of a tin. Oh my gosh, the smell! I peered into the bowl to see vertebrae and eyes and god knows what else. “Just one mouthful” he said. Retching, I managed to eat three mouthfuls.
There was a knock on the door. One of the lactation consultants had come to my rescue; she said she could smell the fish waaaaay down the corridor! This capable, friendly lady showed us how to hand express and when she did it some white drops appeared on my nipple! “You have milk” she said. Breakthrough!! We learnt the technique and she left. We tried to replicate her action but no drips for us! Not fair!
The next day I pumped 10ml of milk. I have the photo to prove it! Adam carried it proudly next door, labeled it with Esmé's name and placed it in the fridge ready for her next tube feed. From that moment onwards each of my sucking feeds was given a score scaling F to A. It was explained to us that once you and your baby were consistently scoring A’s at a healthy baby weight you could grab your capsule and head home. The dream was becoming a reality! I sent proud messages out to my friends and family. “My milk has arrived!” It was twelve days since Esmé had been born.
The following chapter was one big breastfeeding exam. The midwife in charge of manning the NICU ward would discreetly watch my feeding and write down my score in a book that was kept on the counter. One particular Indian lady we found really helpful. She would position Esme’s head firmly, take my breast in her hand and insert it into Esme’s mouth ‘like a burger’. It seemed that my feeds under her watch always went well and I would almost skip to the mother’s room afterwards for my cereal and toast. Adam and I began to dread the shifts when she wasn’t around - she was our guru. My pumped milk would be added to Esme’s top ups. It felt amazing to know that my milk, purely designed for her, was entering her tiny body.
A few more days passed and my supply became stronger. The night before home day Esmé's bed was wheeled into our room. She was to sleep the night with us! She would be weighed in the morning and if she had not lost weight overnight we would be able to take her home. Frankly we were terrified! The nurses were still next door but we were determined to succeed and get home! For some reason I don’t really recall the specifics of that night but Esmé seemed pretty content with our care and after the doctors rounds in the morning, we were packing our bags with excitement.
The next few days my feeding went well. Esmé did seem to be hungry in the evenings so we decided we would be happy for her to have an evening bottle. This has been her routine ever since! We felt we knew exactly what we were doing. Despite completely missing our intensive antenatal class, two weeks of baby boot camp at the hospital was the best training these first time parents could have wished for!
One sunny morning at home my mum said to me "I think you could have a bath with Esmé tonight. That would be really nice for the both of you." I was SO curious. I felt like I had a date that night! I wondered how it would work? Evening came, we gathered fluffy towels and ran a warm bubble bath. I got in and mum carefully placed my tiny babe upon my chest. She immediately started feeding and the warm water cradled us. It was heaven. I was a mother.
My breasts connected me to Esmé and she was the happiest, healthiest little baby. We went to huge lengths to maintain the breastfeeding. Once I was back in the saddle I had to be careful not to stay out riding for hours and miss my feeds. Our amazing support crew would often come with me to events and hold her on the sidelines so I could jump off for a feed. We all held breastfeeding with such high regard.
I look back at our time spent in the hospital with a respectful remembrance. Yes it was tough but it was a completely isolated existence where we literally had nothing else to do but focus on recovering and feeding our new baby. I spent two weeks in a generously fitting hospital gown that could be easily unbuttoned at the front – skin to skin on tap! There were no distractions of daily life, just a pure focus on the feeding that turned out to be so critically important to the bond between Esmé and I.
I have read that when a woman gives birth, hormones are released to connect her with her baby. Looking back, these hormones unfortunately didn’t eventuate for me, but it was certainly the hours and hours of breastfeeding that bonded my little girl and I to the moon and back.