Teaching PJ to eat has been by far the most difficult part of our journey so far, and it’s a big factor in my decision to start this blog. I was lucky enough to have Kym to help me figure it out, but when the inevitable middle of the night question came up, who do I turn to but Dr. Internet? Which made me even more grateful for Kym because, as it turns out, there are next to no resources that deal with teaching a NICU baby how to breastfeed. I am certainly not an expert, but I hope that sharing our experience helps someone else on a 3 am info hunt!
I found out that babies don’t develop their eating instincts until around 33 weeks gestational age, and that boys develop them later than girls (go figure, if you’ve ever watched a teenage boy eat!) So when PJ was born, his brain didn’t know how to process hunger and eating. The nurses handed me a breastpump and told me don’t worry if it takes awhile, he’ll be on IV fluids for a few days anyway. Well, then what?
It starts with a naso-gastric (NG) feeding tube. They take the pumped breast milk or formula and put it right into his belly, just a few drops at a time at first. I was really fortunate, and my supply was plenty to keep PJ fed without introducing formula. Let me tell you, I took this VERY seriously because otherwise I felt so helpless and like I didn’t really have a new baby – I mean, no 3 am screaming and diaper changes? What kind of new mom are you? The kind who sets an alarm for 3 am to pump (although I did sleep through it a few times, oops), and is DETERMINED to get the hang of feeding the baby no matter what!
After the feeding tube alone comes a pacifier with a few drops of milk on it while the tube is going. Turns out babies need to learn the association between taste, swallowing, and being full. The first time they told me PJ had a “speech therapy” appointment, I thought there was a mistake – I mean, he cries, what else are we expecting at two weeks old? But these wonderful ladies actually worked with him to teach him to swallow. Who knew?
Because of being in the NICU and me not being able to be there around the clock, PJ had to learn how to eat from a bottle. Not what I wanted to hear with all that pumping, but I had to agree it would be too much to teach him both ways of feeding at once and bottles had to be it, at least temporarily. Another thing I’m glad I didn’t know at the time was how difficult it would be to get him off the bottle later!
Remember those plateaus and leaps? Well, we sat at a “want nothing to do with a bottle” plateau until he was almost three weeks old. And then, the leap!