Breastfeeding through critical illness and recovery

This is the story of my journey to breastfeed my son. Writing it down has helped me with my recovery. It's going to be published in breastfeeding Matters Magazine later this year. La Leche League is an international charity encouraging mother to mother support for breastfeeding mums and provides all the up to date information on breastfeeding.

In October 2012, I gave birth to my third baby, a boy and biggest yet. He was born very peacefully at home in water, after a traumatic caesarean only nineteen months before. His birthday was everything I had dreamed of and our whole family was on a high.

I breastfed our first two children and I planned to breastfeed our third. With our first baby I battled on with no support suffering with Raynauds in the early weeks. With our second I had to figure out how to breastfeed after an unplanned caesarean. It hadn’t been plain sailing with the first two, and as it turned out, it wasn’t going to be easy with our third either. However this time I had the women I met at my local LLL group on my side.

Two days after the birth, in unrelated circumstances, I became critically ill with septicaemia, which lead to multiple organ failure and I had a large open abdominal wound from emergency surgery. I was in intensive care on various life support machines with tubes and wires everywhere. I was the poorliest person in the hospital on a ventilator providing 90% oxygen, kidneys completely shut down, my body had swelled and I had yellow skin and eyes. My husband was informed things didn’t look good as my condition was not improving. I was kept heavily sedated in an induced coma most of the time and on lots of medications and pain relief. After a hazy few days my first thoughts on regaining consciousness were “where is my baby?” and “get me a breast pump – I need to express” as I knew my baby wasn’t with me and that he would need feeding.

The intensive care staff were not keen to support me with expressing milk for my baby. There were delays and excuses in getting a hospital pump to me. The hospitals breastfeeding supporter was also turned away. As a mum to a days old baby, on the intensive care unit I wasn’t a priority for breastfeeding support; the doctors considered breastfeeding would be just another stress to put on myself and was not on their agenda for helping me regain my health. It was also recorded that the doctors felt my husband was pressuring me to express milk, but this was not the case at all. In my mind there was no alternative. I had to follow my instinctive desire to breastfeed my baby. My baby would be nourished, comforted and feel loved with my body and my milk, if not right now he would be when I got better. Breastfeeding is the basis from which I have grown to be a mother and how I parent my children. I had been given a second chance at life, nursing my baby was going part of it and our relationship would be the strength throughout the journey to reclaim my health.

Eventually I received an electric pump from the hospital but I had no success as I’d never used one before and neither had the nurses. My husband brought in my hand pump from home and I started to express colostrum. I couldn’t sit up to collect it so I had to just let it run down my sides and mopped it up with tissues. My baby was unable to have had this anyway because of the numerous medicines I was on.

I had expressed colostrum during my pregnancy and stored it in the freezer and my husband had given this to our baby. Baby was also being fed on donated expressed milk from the mummies at my LLL group and many other kind people. Once word got around of our situation, women donating to a local milk bank also donated any additional milk they had to our baby. I had never mentioned using donated milk to my husband or doula before the birth and I hadn’t written it in my birth plan either. My husband decided whilst I was unconscious that he thought it’s what I would have wanted and what was best. I’m so happy he did. A lady collecting milk for us also offered to nurse our baby. We were so grateful for this chance to help him remember how to latch and experience the comfort of nursing. Being supported by the LLL mummies and taking on the task of maintaining an all but exclusive breast milk diet for our baby helped my husband stay strong in this period, and gave his mind something to focus on – as well as developing a strong father and son bond.

After twelve days in intensive care I was moved to a ward and still needed lots of treatment including physiotherapy to learn to breathe unassisted and walk again, dressing changes for the wound on my tummy, dialysis treatments and blood transfusions. I was also on restricted fluids as I hadn’t passed urine in two weeks. It was a case of pumping and dumping but I could see my milk supply increasing. My aim was to express at least twice a day but if I was too tired or felt too poorly I didn’t. I was unable to get out of bed and had to ask the nurses to pour the milk down the sink and wash my pump for me. I tried to hold my baby for skin to skin but I wasn’t strong enough to hold him and was in a lot of pain, I just didn’t feel confident. Also I wasn’t able to see him every day which was heartbreaking.

Finally after three weeks, coming off some medications and with some helpful guidance on medicines from the breastfeeding network, baby was able to have my milk. I sat up to feed him and he latched perfectly. It was a happy day. Unfortunately the next day I was rushed back to intensive care as my lungs had overloaded with fluid and I was back on the ventilator. Ten litres of fluid were filtered off my body overnight. I was very happy to wake up the next day as I never expected to but I did feel set back again with all the tubes, wires and medicines. This time though I wasn’t as poorly as before and communicating by writing I asked for my pump again and started expressing whilst still on the ventilator. A doctor said to me “no one is going to think any less of you if you don’t breastfeed” but comments like this just washed over me. Why would I make less of an effort for my baby?

After another three days in ICU I was moved to the cardiology ward where I was told my heart function had been impaired, and the medication that the doctors were suggesting I take meant that I would never be able to give baby my milk. I cried a lot that night and declined the tablets until I could have a discussion with the consultant the following day. Declining the tablets caused the doctors to raise concerns over my life expectancy, quality of life and causing further damage to my heart, although they could also not confirm that the medication would, in fact, actually improve my health. Having no idea what this would mean for the future I decided at present I would not have the tablets and see how I managed. I had come so far and been through so much I wasn’t ready to end our journey yet and I followed my gut instinct. I just could not imagine our future without the bond and special relationship that comes with nursing a baby through their first years, especially after our rough start. My husband agreed that the present quality and enjoyment of life that our family would have, with me breastfeeding our baby, was so very important. Feeding our baby was keeping me going, keeping me healing and getting me home to my children and husband.

Over the next 4 weeks my milk supply increased slowly. My two hand pumps were sent to the children’s ward to be steam sterilised every day (the children’s ward provided sterilising bags and they had a microwave dedicated to sterilising baby feeding equipment). I had a job on my hands explaining this to staff at every shift change on the six different wards that I visited. I got into a routine of expressing first thing in the morning and last thing at night. The milk was labelled and stored in the ward fridge and would be collected by my relatives the next day and taken home to baby. I eventually wrote a page and put it on the front of my care plan in my hospital notes. Many of the staff told me (particularly because of the types of wards I was a patient on) they just didn’t see breastfeeding mothers and didn’t know how to care for me. Having no knowledge of breastfeeding themselves, it was necessary for me to educate them.

My husband brought me sterile bottles and bags to send the milk home in. Baby was fed my milk with a bottle at home and topped up with donated milk whilst my supply slowly increased. When he visited maybe 3 times a week I always tried to give him a feed at the breast. After 8 weeks I was sending home 20oz of milk per day.

Finally after two months in hospital I came home to my family. I needed a lot of care at home for another month but I just kept trying to feed baby on demand as long as I felt well enough. He did not have any issues with his latch changing from bottle to breast. My first achievement was feeding up to lunch time but then my supply dwindled as the day went on and he needed a bottle afternoon and evening. A few days later I fed him until bed time and finally at twelve weeks I was able to feed him all day and night. It took a couple of days to sustain this but finally I achieved a dream I never thought possible, exclusively breastfeeding my baby boy. I will always be amazed that despite being so close to death, with multiple organs shut down, my breasts and body were still making milk for my baby, and that I was able to exclusively breastfeed him so soon into recovery. Continued determination, support from my husband and family, my LLL leader Becky, my doula and my peers had made this possible. It was a team effort from the women of Yorkshire who donated their milk for our baby and filled our freezer with food for our family and were a source of strength, love, support, knowledge and encouragement through everything.

After a few weeks of exclusive breastfeeding it felt like we had never been apart. He smelled like my baby and I recognised him as my own. 18 months on and we are still breastfeeding and very happy. I have spoken to the hospital about my experience and they are now working to keep babies with breastfeeding mothers and ensure they get the right support should they need to stay in the general hospital. I am also personally starting the LLL leader training and helping to set up another circle of support for families in my area. I have a second chance at life and La Leche League has given me a new purpose.

3 Replies

  • Hi summwerwine. What an inspirational story. And great its getting published. So glad to hear also from the other thread that you are feeling a bit Better. You have been through so much I really wish you all the best for the future with your lovely family. Xx J

  • What a wonderful story of pure maternal instinct !Many congratulations to you,for continuing to educate CCU staff,about what is possible. Keep well x

  • Thank you for sharing and well done on your bonding, determination and initiative. Maternal ICU cases are so, so complex - care, consent, contact, consultation, consideration...

    My daughter was delivered by emergency section whilst I was under general anaesthetic in 2011. Just before I was put under I told my partner to put baby skin-to(his)-skin since it's what we had been told in classes. I met a baby in my ICU bed. I say a baby because I hadn't seen mine born so had to assume she was ours. I was then transferred by emergency ambulance to a hospital fifty miles away where I remained for the next seven weeks in case I need a transplant. Our daughter was kept in SCBU in the hospital where she was delivered...fifty miles from me. She was healthy but because my partner and I weren't married, she wasn't allowed home with him. Apparently I was able to sign consent for her release home to him six days later...

    No one mentioned breastfeeding (it was always my intention) let alone post partum care. It was until after multiple operations, blood transfusions, two long periods of sedation and dialysis when I was aware enough to ask someone around six weeks on. By that time I was told I was out of the midwifery postpartum care timescale. I wanted to know what happened to my body in terms of the delivery; what was happening down below, production of milk, why one nipple was so cracked... Let alone the multiple organ failure impact on me and huge abdominal wounds. Just for medical staff to consider...and think before asking whether my baby was upstairs....not, fifty miles away...

    Meanwhile my daughter was being formula fed. I met her again - four times in seven weeks - but couldn't hold her to my skin let alone a bottle. Personally, I'm glad she didn't have anyone else's milk - that would have devastated me further; The happiest day of our lives hadn't been;I still feel like I failed to do what's so natural.That said, she's now a healthy, advanced and happy 2.5yr old. Too much pressure to breastfeed didn't help and yes, it may have taken me much longer to bond. After all, childbirth nearly killed me. I'm sad I'm advised not to have another as I grieve for the experience but I am so happy and extremely lucky we both survived.

    My new purpose and reward is volunteering bedsideon ICU and things appreciated more, mainly fresh air, whatever the weather.

    Each experience can be different but there are similarities also which is why this place is the most understanding support. All the best to every survivor, patient, loved one, visitor and staff x

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