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Mama, exclusive pumping is a triumph


My Mary was born on February 14. It was an emergency c-section. I was barely able to glance at her

before she was whisked away from me by a nurse.

I did not see her again for four days.

Before giving birth, I knew that I would breastfeed. A mother’s milk is the best source of nutrients and antibodies - it is tailor-made for your little one. I believed I'd done my research on direct breastfeeding, but I quickly realised I hadn't done enough on pumping. I thought this was something to think about when I went back to work. I was wrong.

It was a brutal delivery and I needed time to recover.

Mary was away from me in the special care unit: She was born 3 weeks early and at only 3.68 lbs, was below the normal range for birth weight. I was told babies born at 37 weeks weigh on average around 6.30 lbs.

The hospital had started to give her formula already without informing me.

I followed along as I thought I did not have a say in how they cared for her. I felt they ought to know better than me. One nurse was kind enough to teach me how to get my milk flowing and gave me syringes to collect my milk so it could be taken up to her. When I was finally able to see her, I thought how small she looked, so bony and so frail.

All I wanted to do was pick her up and cradle her in my arms.

A nurse took my daughter out from the incubator and gave her to me. When I asked if I could breastfeed

her, she told me I could only breastfeed in a breastfeeding room, not in the baby ward. As she had tubes all around her, the nurse told me to wait until she was out of the incubator for good. I quietly obeyed as I believed - I kept thinking they were the professionals and knew best.

I was discharged after five days and went home - it broke my heart to leave my daughter behind.

I had a single electric pump and spent an hour trying to produce as much as I could. I filled the five bottles the hospital gave me and naively thought that I had made enough that I would not need to pump again till the next day. There wasn't much information out there and I didn't realise that pumping every 2-3 hours would help me maintain a healthy supply.

I went to the hospital every day, staying for as long as they'd permit, doing everything they would 'allow' me to - changing her, giving her my expressed milk.

I watched the nurse unplug her tubes and take her out of the incubator and learned the routine by heart. But when I tried to do it myself, I was treated like a nuisance, like a naughty school girl, instead of a mother desperate to hold and care for her baby.

My daughter was finally out of the incubator after 10 days, but she could only be discharged once she reached the target weight of 4.41 lbs. I brought her to the breastfeeding room to try to nurse her directly but having only had bottles, and still being tiny, she simply could not latch.

I tried for an hour, alone in the breastfeeding room, willing it all to fall into place.

But she would always fall asleep. I would feel so dejected once I got back home. I was still pumping for her but I wanted to nurse directly. When I asked the medical staff for help, they told me they needed to book a lactation consultant but admitted she wouldn't be able to come to the special care unit, and as I was discharged it would take much longer to secure a spot.

They advised me to wait till I was home - but I knew that waiting would make the situation even harder.

I tried latching my daughter every day while at the hospital, I would have some lucky days and not so lucky days. It got so frustrating that I thought we would just focus on getting her home and try again then. Little did I know, she would stay in the hospital for 21 days.

When she was finally discharged, I was given a long list of instructions from the doctors. In

order to maintain her weight gain, I had to add calories (PolyCal) to her milk and I needed to

record the amount of milk she drank in every feed.

I knew I had to put a hold on the direct breastfeeding again.

I noticed that I was not producing enough milk when I pumped four times a day, so I started to look online for reasons why and how to fix the situation. I spent a lot of time reading about direct feeding, without really realising that exclusively pumping is a different thing entirely.

While on the hunt for milk boosting supplements, I found a shop called Legendairy and scrolling their Instagram page. It hit me. The notion of supply and demand in direct breastfeeding - if your baby wants to suckle for breast milk, he or she will cry for it. But as my daughter was crying for her milk that came in a bottle, I needed to adjust everything to fit that.

It was my job to follow a feeding routine for a newborn routine but to make it work for a pump.

I tried to find a pumping schedule for me. I was already 2 months postpartum. When I found one, I

was in a shock. I should have been pumping 7-8 times a day.

How could I? When would I find the time? Who will wash the pump parts 7 times a day while recovering and taking care of a baby? So many questions were rushing through my head. I knew I had to do it somehow.

But it was easier said then done.

I could only manage 6 pumps in 24 hours and I was struggling to find a pump that worked for me - I just was not producing enough for her. Then there was the stress of returning to work. I had some milk in the freezer, but I knew it wouldn't last.

As a teacher, I could only pump during my spare period. Every day I had a different schedule. I was pumping at odd hours twice at school. I was always in a rush to my lessons. I'd kick myself for forgetting a pump part or the ice-pack.

I cried over spilt milk.

Another colleague had joined me in the pumping room as she gave birth a few months after I did.

She introduced me to a new pump and I bought one immediately. She would yield a lot of

milk and I was so jealous inside. She told me she pumped twice a day and direct breastfeed her

son the rest of the time.

I was disappointed at myself for not being able to breastfeed.

I started having anxiety attacks and I was going down the postpartum depression rabbit hole. I longed for my daughter to latch on to me for a long time. Even when she was six months I didn't give up hope that it was possible and reached out to a Hong Kong breastfeeding group about how to make it happen.

But I found few people who had exclusively pumped.

I thought I was failure as a mother to not be able to directly breastfeed my daughter. Everyone around me told me to stop pumping and just got cold turkey so she could latch on. Everyone told me to stop pumping and just give her formula as she was already on the bottle. They didn't really know what it was like.

My well-established supply was dwindling again.

Then I found a Facebook group for women who exclusively pump. Though they were based in the US, I felt I finally found my community. People who understood my sentiments and thought process. The posts on that group lifted my spirit and changed my perspective on exclusive pumping.

I realised that although I could not directly breastfeed my daughter, I was still giving her the most precious thing in the world. Who cares if it was in a non-conventional way?

There are hundreds and thousands of women doing this.

There are hundreds and thousands of babies getting their mother’s milk this way.

I persevered.

I exclusively pumped for my daughter for 12 months.

About the author: Saira is a mother of one. When she is not not teaching, she is either baking with her daughter or creating artwork. Read her guide to Exclusive Pumping here.

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