Breastfeeding a Preemie

by Lauretta Zucchetti
Originally Published: 

I admit it: I romanticized breastfeeding. It didn’t matter that three of my best friends complained ruthlessly about it. The horror stories I’d read—about scabby nipples, fickle mouths, and exhaustion you can taste—were unfortunate tales that happened to strangers but certainly wouldn’t apply to me. I envisioned peaceful hours in a rocking chair, my infant daughter quietly nursing while I read novels and shed all of the weight I’d gained in my final trimester, when I devoured raspberry chocolate chip muffins as steadily as most people consume water. The weight would disappear magically, and my daughter and I would bond for life.

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A part of me blames the kindly nurse who assured me that I would get used to breastfeeding. “Nursing is so special,” she said as she placed my daughter at my breast. “It’s an extraordinary experience, and you’ll have it down in no time.”

I didn’t.

Isabella was born four weeks premature, and her bite was underdeveloped, the doctors explained. They also pointed out that she had a weak suck, a term that struck me as derogatory and insulting and yet wildly hilarious, as most things with the intricacies of childbirth and the human body seemed to me. Weak suck or not, Isabella had no interest in my breasts and what they could offer her. My breasts—grotesque in size, leaking without my consent, and throbbing with pain—were another story. They wanted nothing more than to feed her.

Twelve hours after Isabella was born, I was convinced she was going to die of starvation. She. Would. Not. Stop. Screaming. Once home from the hospital, I resigned to our king-sized bed and sprawled out like a beached whale with Isabella cradled on top of me, begging her to nurse and sleep. At long last, she latched on.

And stayed there.

The only problem? She couldn’t take in much.

Premature babies with underdeveloped bites take twice as long to feed, namely because it requires more effort. This meant that Isabella was attached to my breast 23/7. With no family nearby and a husband whose workaholic tendencies did not taper off with the arrival of our child as I’d imagined, I was left with one manic hour to sleep, shower, and clean the house. I was lucky if I got around to brushing my teeth.

“You two look so beautiful,” my husband said from the doorway of the nursery one evening when he came home from work. Dishes were stacked in the kitchen sink. Piles of sweatshirts with spit-up were waiting for me in the laundry room. I’d put on mascara three days before in a vain attempt to look pretty and feel normal, and hadn’t bothered to wash it off. I didn’t have time to look pretty, let alone beautiful. Meanwhile, he appeared freshly scrubbed, well-rested, and handsome. I could have kicked him.

Isabella might have looked beautiful but her attempts at feeding were growing progressively strained. Delivering proper nutrition to her was my chief if not only concern, but everything I tried to make the process easier and more efficient failed. She appeared to be shrinking while everything about me, including my anger, seemed to have tripled in size. I also kept seeing the figures of small, irate children in my periphery vision, and, oddly enough, visions of my mother when she was a teenager.

The hallucinations were terrifying, but not as frightening as the person I became when, three weeks after Isabella was born, we took her to see her pediatrician.

“She’s lost weight,” Dr. Perry said with a disapproving cluck of his tongue and scowling at me over the rims of his glasses as if looking for tangible evidence of my many failures as a mother.

“All I do is breastfeed her,” I yelled. Yelled was an understatement. All other noise in the doctor’s busy office ceased. My husband bent his beet-red face in shame. When a nurse tipped her head into the room, presumably to make sure everyone was still alive, I realized I was standing over Dr. Perry and shaking a fist in his face. I’d show him mothering, alright. He jotted down a note on his prescription pad, handed it over without looking into my eyes, and promptly left the room.

The piece of paper had two words: La Leche.

I called them as soon as we got home. The woman who answered sounded attractive and refreshed, which only made me madder. Was everyone competent, good-looking, and raring to go but me? Then I checked myself and relaxed into her voice at the same moment she detected the hysteria in mine. She ordered me to buy a plastic bottle, which they sold, fill it with formula, and hang it upside down on my chest. It would be equipped with tiny tubes that I would then secure to my nipples, enabling Isabella to take in a touch of formula along with good, old-fashioned breast milk. In other words, why switch to formula altogether when there was such a genial solution?

It felt half-assed in a way, as fraudulent as a part-time vegetarian or a Christian-come-Sunday. Still, I was determined to have the breastfeeding experience I’d imagined, and hell-bent on giving my daughter not only the best nutrition but the most authentic form of it. I sent my husband out that night to purchase the supplies we needed for the experiment. I didn’t have to ask twice—at that point, he would have swam to Alcatraz to retrieve the goods had I asked—and, armed with cautious optimism, I began the supplemental nursing system procedure.

Prepare formula.

Poor liquid into bottle.

(God, this was cake!)

Tape feeding tube to breasts.

Squeeze to make sure formula is coming out at Just the Right Speed.

Set baby on boob.

Easy, yes?


Struggling with a squirming infant who is perpetually hungry is no small feat. Her livid screams didn’t help with my frayed nerves. The tape moved. I fumbled to get the tube in place while trying to keep Isabella’s mouth open wide enough and long enough to get my sore nipple and the feeder in at the same time. She was averse to both. My husband complained about her crying from the other room, his gracious mood gone. The phone would not stop ringing. My stomach was growling, my breasts were oozing, snot was gorging from my not-so-beautiful-in-that-moment daughter’s nose, and I couldn’t control the urge to pee. Motherhood wasn’t peach-lit rooms and soft nuzzles. Motherhood was exactly what my grandmother said: It was goddamn messy.

After a considerable amount of time in which I swore to the Virgin Mary that I would never have sex again, Isabella started suckling, finally at ease with the contraption. By then, I was too exhausted to appreciate it and wholly convinced that I should have just stuck with my own breasts. And, of course, by the time I cleaned everything up, Isabella was awake again and I had to restart the entire process.

Dr. Perry checked Isabella’s weight a week later. She was making progress. It didn’t matter that I was devolving in every other way. I had pseudo-breastfed successfully. And even if I could see the indignation in the eyes of my friends who equated formula with the juice of the devil, I felt victorious. I was a Capable Mother.

Four weeks after implementing the system, I decided to give myself a break and take a walk. I packed Isabella into the stroller and parked her on the porch while I unlocked the gate. A wail that sounded nothing like hunger pierced through the neighborhood. In the twenty seconds I had turned my back, the stroller had rolled down the steps and tipped over on the brick walkway. Isabella was buried underneath it. She went silent.

My scream was louder than any of Isabella’s. I was convinced her skull was crushed. A neighbor rushed over and lifted the stroller for me; I couldn’t bear to look, nor could I bear to realize that I’d forgotten to set the brake. She gathered my daughter in her arms, and Isabella started crying immediately. It was the most glorious sound I’d ever heard. Turns out, the feather pillow I’d placed under her head saved her from a fatal fall. At least I’d done something right.

I thanked the neighbor, the sun, the stars, and the Virgin Mary, and vowed then and there to make a change. Would I prefer a formula-raised child or a breastfed baby consistently at risk of losing her life because her mother was dangerously fatigued and absentminded as an old bat? There was no question.

I didn’t make it far that day. I walked inside while my neighbor soothed Isabella, and threw away all the paraphernalia La Leche had suggested. Then I took a hot shower, wrapped my breasts in tight fabric, and relinquished breastfeeding for good. Two hours later, Isabella took in twice as much formula from a bottle in a quarter of the time she usually spent on my chest, then slept for four hours—the longest stretch of uninterrupted she’d ever had.

And, mercy, I slept too.

The room was peach-lit when we both awoke. There was a raspberry chocolate chip muffin on the nightstand beside me. I took a bite, silently thanked my husband for his small gestures of kindness, and smiled at Isabella. She blinked and smiled back at me. Our life together was about to begin.

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