Over the span of 20 years and six children, my birthing experiences had run the gamut from gurney-hopping in the bad old days before labor and delivery rooms, to an unplugged, unmedicated delivery with midwives. But a few constants remained: my belief in prenatal exercise, my categorical rejection of C-sections, and my disdain for those who bottle-fed. My babies were plump from mother’s milk!
I was delighted to become pregnant at 41; my two previous pregnancies had miscarried, one at 20 weeks, in a serious hemorrhage. I breathed a sigh of relief as we passed that mark, and walked every day and ate nutritiously.
The first bleeding episode happened at 23 weeks, the second at 28 weeks, and the third at 32 weeks. I was diagnosed with placenta previa–the placenta was covering the cervix. Which meant I was in danger of suddenly hemorrhaging, putting me and baby in mortal danger. On bed rest, I was to stay in the hospital until 36 weeks, when I’d be c-sectioned, since a vaginal delivery was impossible.
When the placenta previa resolved at 38 weeks, I rejoiced that I no longer faced a Cesarean and went home to enjoy a few weeks of freedom. We made it to full-term! Feeling accomplished, I arrived at the hospital to give birth-–naturally. But the baby was transverse (instead of its head being down, its shoulder or back was down).
My doctor offered to try external version, manually turning the baby by pressing and pushing on my belly. Version completed, I felt we had passed the final test. But then my water broke full of meconium, and his heartbeat disappeared. My doctor sat on my bed searching for his heartbeat. When she found it, instead of the usual galloping horses, three lone beats bracketed long empty silences. She opened her eyes and I knew.
The nurse called the code and the doors to my room flew open. As my bed shot across the floor I glanced at the clock–3:04 a.m. We reached the operating room and in a final drama, his cord prolapsed. The anesthesiologist pressed a black rubber mask on my face, “Breathe deeply!” My last thoughts: “Dear God, let him be alive,” and, “I hope I don’t feel it when they cut me.”
I surfaced hours later. Pressure on my abdomen, a chipped tooth. “The baby?” I croaked. “He’s fine!” my doctor reassured me. I was groggy, so she held him next to me. I glimpsed the card in his bassinet. Born at 3:10 a.m. Just six minutes from womb to room!
We left the hospital with instructions for wound-care (me) follow-up visits (him) and the usual postpartum detritus. So my pregnancy had been uncharacteristically horizontal (with all that bed rest) and I hadn’t avoided a Cesarean, but there was still breastfeeding–I would get that right! After nursing six babies successfully I knew what to do.
But he didn’t. He’d latch on weakly, then fall asleep only to wake and start again. At his ten day check-up he’d lost almost a pound since birth and his skin’s elasticity was gone. The doctor pressed a bottle of formula into my hand, and we were en route to the NICU. As the baby gulped the free-flowing formula I was torn. I’m feeding him poison… But he’s starving! And what about my principles?
After testing for a lot of scary things, it turned out he was simply dehydrated. At some point he’d fallen behind on a feeding, and that had started a downward spiral of exhaustion and poor eating. I needed to teach him to breast-feed. The nurse created a device out of a tiny bottle with an itty-bitty plastic tube inserted through the nipple. With the breast and the tube placed in the baby’s mouth, he’d soon learn where food came from.
We left the hospital with a pump and for the next six weeks I nursed him for the few seconds he could manage, fed him expressed milk from a bottle with extra large holes in the nipple, and pumped for the next feeding.
I’m happy to report that he did learn, and at 19 months he’s still going strong with nursing–minus the plastic tubing. I learned too, that sometimes you need to throw out your principles; and I will never again disdain someone who bottle-feeds. After all, it saved my son.