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My Nursling's Surgery

Lara Garrett
Springfield, Missouri, USA
From New Beginnings, Vol. 31 No. 1, 2010, pp. 10-11

I attended my first La Leche League meeting with my eight-week-old son, Ben. I'm not exactly sure what I expected, but I was pleasantly surprised. I walked into a room full of moms just like me. I listened to a discussion about first foods and observed a sense of comfort in sharing, similar to watching a discussion between old friends.

Several friends and I were pregnant at the same time and all of us planned on breastfeeding. By the time I attended that meeting our children were between the ages of one and four months and all of them except Ben had either entirely or partially begun drinking formula. I alone remained unwavering in my decision to breastfeed exclusively. Though I believed my existing friendships were invaluable, when one friend told me, "I really don't like breastfeeding," I knew I needed to reach out and find people who could support me in continuing. In order to carry on breastfeeding through reflux -- which began to trouble my baby at three weeks -- and then surgery, I needed other moms who were as passionate about breastfeeding as I was.

When the meeting opened for discussion I asked if anyone had nursed before and after infant surgery. The room fell quiet as I calmly explained that my son was born with craniosynostosis (prematurely fused sutures in the skull) resulting in only one soft spot. He would need surgery around 12 weeks of age to remove a section of bone from the top and back of his skull. I could feel the compassion from the other mothers in the room and I had to pause to confirm that everything would be okay. No one was able to offer more because none of the mothers had shared my misfortune.

I then shared that my husband had taken a job out of town, so I was alone with my baby five days a week and, what with the reflux and pre-surgery appointments, it had been a difficult first two months. I left the meeting with several phone numbers and email addresses and I started getting emails that evening from mothers reaching out to me. I had a phone call the next day, a lunch date later that week, and the connections and support have only grown since then.

The stress of waiting for the surgery weighed heavily on our family. Breastfeeding helped me to slow down, relax, and focus on one moment at a time. I developed such a strong bond with Ben and could read his cues so easily that he rarely cried. Before his birth I seemed so uptight and in so many ways I am a different person now.

One of the LLL Leaders found another mom out of state who had also nursed through infant surgery. I spoke to her on the phone and she provided reassurance and support, and encouraged me to be proactive with the hospital staff.

During my early appointments with the surgeon, I came with pages of questions, many of which involved nursing. Ben's surgeon supported my wishes to continue to breastfeed throughout this ordeal. I let out a huge sigh of relief when he said I should nurse as soon as Ben was released from the recovery room, because that would be the first thing I wanted to do.

The hospital staff encouraged me to bring frozen expressed milk and my pump to the hospital in case Ben needed a feeding tube. Although I had read horror stories of moms being encouraged to wean prior to infant surgery, I was pleased by my interactions with the hospital staff and surgical team. Everyone understood and respected our intention to breastfeed throughout the hospital stay.

During the pre-operation appointment I met with an anesthesiologist. He said I should nurse Ben no later than midnight the night before surgery, but I could give him water until 3:30 am because it's a clear liquid. I was dreading this, considering Ben normally nurses several times between midnight and 7:00 am, when surgery was scheduled to begin. I brought this up with my LLL Leaders and they led me to several published articles about breastmilk being considered a "clear liquid." I called the anesthesiology team with my research and they agreed to let me nurse Ben until 3:30 that morning. I was greatly relieved and Ben did fine without nursing the rest of the morning.

The night before surgery we didn't sleep at all. I returned to nesting, insisting the house be spotless before we left. I didn't want to worry about cleaning when I came home. That night I nursed Ben as much as I could and I pumped just before we left.

We arrived at 5:30 am and the wait was impossibly difficult. The staff let us stay with Ben through all of the early testing and we changed him into a tiny hospital gown, and then carried him down the hallway. The most emotional part of the day was handing him over to the nurse and saying goodbye.

The surgery started nearly two hours later than expected. I pumped again during our wait. At 11:00 am the surgeon brought us into a conference room and told us the surgery had gone very well.

An hour and a half later we were able to see Ben. His head was bandaged and he had three IVs, one in his arm and one in each ankle. We traveled with Ben to the pediatric intensive care unit (ICU). He was drowsy but nursed well when he woke up. It was so emotional to be holding him and nursing him again, with a dozen tubes and wires stretched from his bed to the chair where I was sitting. Our nurse was amazingly supportive. She helped position us so that we could nurse as easily as possible. She added IV extensions before her shift was over, so that I could pick Ben up without needing a second person to help. Later that evening he needed a third blood transfusion. My husband's blood is the same type as my son's so he qualified to donate for Ben's transfusions. I nursed Ben while he was receiving this transfusion and had another emotional rush as I thought about how my husband's body as well as my own were able to sustain our son's life.

Ben nursed well throughout our hospital stay. We were allowed to sleep next to him in the ICU and then we were moved to our own room the following day. Friends and family brought us meals and the mothers of LLL Springfield sent me a sweet card and a gift certificate for a delivery from a local restaurant. We stayed in the hospital for four very tiring days. Once home Ben nursed more frequently and slept more irregularly than before, but we had expected this.

We were all so exhausted but at the same time relieved to have this behind us.

I am so grateful for all of the support I've received from my LLL Group. I would like to encourage others to be proactive about their own medical treatment and if something doesn't sound right do some research to find out more! It's okay to ask questions in a calm and respectful manner and, in my experience, the doctors are receptive and ready to work with breastfeeding families. It is horrible to see your baby suffer through surgery, but I honestly feel that nursing Ben throughout that time was truly the best thing I could have done for my child.

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