"Having my baby admitted to NICU - not being allowed to breastfeed"

About: University Hospital Lewisham / Maternity care

(as the patient),

My baby was born at 42 weeks and was admitted to Neonate Intensive Care Unit at Lewisham Hospital due to aspiration and ingestion of meconium. She stayed in NICU for 5 nights until we were allowed to be together for a night and then go home. The whole experience was frightening and disempowering but I have no doubt that the care she received was very good.

I was determined from the outset that I wanted to breastfeed her, but I was told by nursing staff that this was not in her best interest since those caring for her had to know exactly how much food she was getting (which was not possible with breast vs formula).

Every maternal instinct told me that this was not necessarily the right way to go. Finally the nurses told me that if I could express enough milk for my baby then I would be allowed to give it to her in a bottle.

The amount that I was told to produce was not possible as I was only producing colostrum in tiny amounts (as is normal within the first days).

My baby's first feed ended up being a bottle feed mixture of expressed colostrum, infant formula and sodium. The latter was included at the consultant's request since my daughter's blood results indicated low sodium. This was duly given and she vomited very soon after receiving the feed. It was terrible to see that all the beneficial work that I had done to try to compensate for not being allowed to breastfeed was wasted.

Over several days of repeatedly pleading to be allowed to breastfeed my baby, and escalating the issue to the consultant, I was finally given permission.

The consultant even commented on how determined I was. I think he meant this kindly, but in retrospect it seems incredibly patronising as I felt that I had to battle for several days to be allowed to do the best thing for my baby.

My first experience of breastfeeding my baby was sitting in open view in the ward, on a hard chair with no arm rests, my feet and ankles aching from oedema...and feeling the hostility of the nurse (who did not agree with my actions).

One evening I came to see my daughter before bed and was told by the nurse not to touch her, as she had only just been settled and got to sleep. I sat and watched my baby for a while, aching to touch her, then went back upstairs and cried.

My suggestions for improvement to help the staff are as follows:

- Education on the ways that they can encourage breastfeeding and the reasons why this can be beneficial to mother and child, even in the NICU environment.

- Top-down directives that really look at how breastfeeding can be integrated into NICU activities. Commitment from the senior clinical staff to see that all mothers who wish to breastfeed are actively listened to and that feeding plans include mothers and breastfeeding.

- Infrastructure, such as a quiet, private place for breastfeeding. Encouragement of skin to skin contact. Appropriate chairs.

My daughter is 8 months old now and is healthy and happy. I still feel emotional when I think about the way in which I was made to feel that my wishes for breastfeeding were not in her best interest.

I do understand that NICU nurses have a very difficult job, that many babies in their care are extremely vulnerable and many die despite wonderful care and intervention. However, there is still a place for parental involvement in decisions about feeding and I feel there should be greater assistance and encouragement for breastfeeding. If 'breast is best' for healthy babies, surely it could also be best for sick babies?

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