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Breastfeeding a Bottlefed Early Baby

by Karin Harris, Calgary, Alberta

I never liked the word ‘premature’, so I use Early. Much to my shock, my first born child came 5 1/2 weeks early. I was ambulated, in labour, to the teaching hospital where my child was born and ended up staying the next eight days in and out of an incubator.

I was told I couldn’t nurse her, since she needed most of her energy for breathing. Luckily, I was coached on how to express my breastmilk, so at least my daughter received top-quality milk by bottle.

When my daughter was at home, something began to happen. I no longer had enough milk for her. She was needed more than I could express. I was exhausted with pumping, preparing my milk for storage, and them warming it for the baby. How much easier it would be, just to nurse! I tried again, but by now we were entering her third week of life. Every attempt I made to put her to the breast, she would clamp her little mouth shut and twist her head from right to left. I was amazed at how someone so young, could have such strong willpower.

I supplemented my milk with formula. One evening I had no breastmilk for the feeding, so I gave her a full bottle of straight formula. As soon as she was finished drinking she hurled the entire contents across the room. One swift projectile vomit and it was all out. That was the deciding moment. I vowed I would do everything I possibly could to convince my daughter to nurse.

I took a slow, painful route, but my daughter adjusted. I fed her expressed breastmilk first, then I put her up against my breast when she wasn’t so hungry. Some say let the baby try nursing first, when most alert, but that didn’t work because she had grown to desire the bottle. So I let her fill her tummy, and when she was content, and perhaps just wanted to do a little suckling, then I’d put her to the breast. The first few times she just rested against my nipple with no sucking. Then I would begin the process of expressing again for the next feeding (it was like feeding triplets). Every night I cried and cried, because life was hard.

I persevered, and my daughter began to take a few sucks. And a few more sucks; and then she’d nurse for two minutes. It went on like this for a week, until I felt ready to skip a feeding of expressed breastmilk, and let her breastfeed first. All of this might seem like overkill, but it was very important that my early baby continue to gain weight and get fluids. I think the whole process of weaning her off the bottle only lasted about three weeks, but it seemed like an eternity to me. Somewhere around four or five weeks, she began to nurse like a longtime trooper, often for an hour at a time. I was filled with joy.

Throughout the entire conversion process I weighed my daughter from time to time. In the first two months, she gained 10 ounces a week. By the time she was two months old she was near the 50th percentile for full term babies. Now, seven years later, I am a third time mother and I never weight my third baby. But it was so important to me back then because Jule was early and I was switching feeding modes on her.

We continued to nurse for just under a year. We had many beautiful evenings where we stayed in bed for an hour of nursing. I was so afraid about her eyesight, he health and her learning ability. At the age of four, her kindergarten teacher found her to have grade two reading ability and advanced logic. She was accepted into a school for gifted children but we ended up sending her to a French school so she could learn Canada’s two languages. Recently she attended the birth of my third child. I am glad God put Jule in our family. Perhaps this story can be my gift to another mother.


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