Breast feeding a sick baby

Knowing our little one was to begin life with a major operation meant we had chance to prepare ourselves a little for what was about to come. We visited all of the hospitals that would be involved and gathered as much information about the diagnosis as we could. One thing nobody prepared us for though, were the effects it would all have on feeding.

When our baby was born we didn’t have the opportunity for skin to skin, Mommy couldn’t stay with baby, and no food was given until the day after the operation (day 4) with baby not going on the breast til day 5. All of this meant those initial instincts and reflexes didn’t have the usual chance to kick in and develop in the expected way.

Whilst babies are expected to lose upto 10% of their body weight after birth, our baby was to face other factors that would cause the weight to drop off. Along with the lack of food for a few days, the operation and subsequent healing of the wound involves additional energy consumption as would the frustrating unsuccessful feeds. One consultant also informed us that being on an IV drip encourages weight loss. All of this resulted in a lethargic sleepy baby and this multitude of problems meant establishing breast feeding was an enormous task, something we hadn’t bargained for leaving us with additional worries.

Luckily, we were in the right place. The benefits of breastmilk to sick babies are huge so a supportive team of staff were highly motivated to help us succeed. With so many people involved, we were given plenty of conflicting advice – we just had to persist and find out what worked for us.

Tips that worked for us – one of the biggest winners for us was to change a nappy mid-feed. The upset caused by nappy changing interfered with the ability to latch on if done beforehand, but once baby had nodded off after working hard at the breast, this upset could be utilised to wake baby up enough for round 2 and was calmed easier because of a contented belly!

Secondly, there was an ongoing debate about topping up with expressed milk. Should we syringe feed to ensure baby was full and had sufficient nourishment? Was this making life too easy and making breastfeeding too much like hard work? Would a hungry baby try harder? How much should you syringe? Every person we came into contact with had a different opinion and one day we’d top up, one day we wouldn’t, which wasn’t working for anyone. At the end of the day, feeling like you’re baby is being starved is torture for any parent so the best advice we were given was to give a little bit of milk first to give enough of a sugar rush to initiate a good feed, which worked (effectively proving that baby wasn’t becoming lazy when syringe fed) 🙂

Brilliant advice was also given prior to the birth of my baby, and I’d recommend it to anyone who has a date – to express a week before baby is to be delivered. Not only does it give you a large supply of colostrum (which is particularly beneficial for babies remaining in hospital) but it also gives you the confidence in your own body so that you only have baby to worry about after the big day. Interesting fact I was told…whilst your body is only producing a small amount of colostrum, your baby benefits from learning to latch on to an empty breast 🙂 Unfortunately, this meant yet another barrier for us as I was producing a full supply of milk by the time I started breast feeding.

Tips that didn’t work – whilst skin to skin is great for breastfeeding, our little one loved it so much she could’ve slept for hours on your chest and frequently did! Although breastfeeding is on demand, there is a limit, especially when trying to get established. One nurse suggested limiting skin to skin to half an hour and then putting baby back in the cot. Rightly or wrongly it worked for us as 20 mins later baby would be back on the breast 🙂

The other advice we chose not to take was to try baby with a bottle. This was suggested over and over but I wasn’t willing to risk it ruining baby’s latch as I was confident sooner or later we’d get there. This also applies to the dummy – non-nutritive sucking helps comfort babies, so this was offered to help our baby through any anxiety. I had the same fears with a dummy as with a bottle so again chose to refuse and popped my finger in baby’s mouth whenever required! Please note that dummies are beneficial for preterm babies who haven’t had as much sucking practise in utero, so whilst, in some respects parents of preterm babies will find themselves in a similar situation, not all of these tips will be relevant.

As with all babies, remember they’re all unique and this blog only provides our story – what worked for us maybe completely wrong for you. But hopefully, it demonstrates how necessary it is for parents to pick their way through the advice given, experiment with different ideas, and have confidence in your own journey. In some areas, professionals can offer their knowledge and make suggestions but only you know what you’ve already tried and what works for you. I hope that this blog also helps to raise awareness of what to expect if your baby is sick or in hospital thus increasing the chances of success.

All in all, it took between 3 and 4 weeks for us to see an improvement meaning a lot of catching up to do and one very hungry baby! Breastfeeding aside, we’d have been out of hospital in a week, so thank you to all the staff who kept the faith and value breastfeeding enough to keep persisting 🙂


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