Making It Work This Time

Aren spoke proudly of her son’s natural birth and the benefits of breastfeeding. Then, surprisingly, she said “I want things to go differently this time”. Within an hour of birth with their firstborn, he had been taken to the Special Care nursery. She and her husband  had felt adrift, confused and that too many things interfered with breastfeeding.

The experience of postpartum resonates for a long time. Trauma at this moment has a particular hold. Aren and I unravelled her story so we could see how things could go differently.

It was most important to her to touch and nurse her baby.  I shared research about the value of mother/baby skin to skin contact.  The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends uninterrupted, direct skin to skin contact even for premature and sick infants. This is, in part, because that promotes breastfeeding.  Aren wrote a plan for calmer postpartum that included frequent skin to skin.  Her midwife put it into her chart.

When her new baby was born, he immediately went onto her belly. She asked “Is he breathing okay”?” The midwife listened carefully and reassured her  “He’s fine”. Soon he latched on and nursed contentedly. “Is his breathing okay?” The midwife listened carefully and reassured her again.  An hour later, Aren said “I think something’s wrong with his breathing. Is he okay?” And this time something was not right.

Speaking calmly and looking in her eyes, the nurse explained that her son did need to go to the nursery. Aren immediately wilted, like a balloon with no air.  Three of us kept a hand on her to be in touch. Her husband could go with their son. The NICU was within sight. She would be able to join them.

Yet, this was still early postpartum for Aren’s body and we needed to protect this moment for her. For good reason, many postpartum traditions include guidelines for protecting vulnerable new mothers, and that is what we followed. The traditions include:
heat/warmth
privacy for mother/baby
trusted community support.

We improvised to honor this vulnerable moment. We helped Aren into sweat pants, put slippers on her feet and gave them both cups of hot chocolate (an improvised ritual food). That was the warmth component.

In the nursery, we pulled a glider chair next to her baby. She and her husband sat together and touched their son’s fingers. That was the privacy mama-baby component.

The pediatrician, a resident with a soft accent, reflected Aren’s concerns. “I want to know what your questions are and be certain that you understand the answers,” she said, making eye contact with Aren. Both parents spoke about being separated, confused by tests and obstacles to breastfeeding.  The dialogue with the doctor began to feel like trusted community support.

Aren was able to breastfeed during heel pricks or anytime. The pediatrician met with them regularly and the nurses kept ‘her’ glider next to her baby. Aren said this was a much calmer experience.

Whether labor has a few or a lot of interventions, it always leads to a birth day with unique needs to honor. Keep these simple values in mind, honor this time and improvise as need be. Whether breastfeeding or not, it is a unique and significant time.

text and photos c. Robin Snyder-Drummond, 2011. (names and some details have been changed to protect anonymity.)