30ml Mum

No one had spoken to me about expressing before.

I guess I’d never thought of it before and at 30 weeks pregnant preparing to feed my baby seemed like a long way off.

seeing our son for the first time

seeing our son for the first time

And now here he was; covered in lines and tubes. Monitors beeping and in a pespex box so far removed from me.

My waters had broken with little warning and he’d arrived soon after. The labour was straightforward and I was discharged from the ward. And there he was, in NICU. And there I was, getting ready to go home.

I was exhausted, numb and in shock. We’d spent the afternoon sitting by his side – watching, waiting – taking everything and yet nothing in. The nurse looking after us suggested we went home to get some rest. She knew we had a long road ahead of us. Leaving the unit the breastfeeding nurse caught up with us – had I started expressing she wanted to know. The blank look on my face told her all she needed to know. I was taken into the expressing room. Had I not been so emotionally and physically shattered the site of tubes, machines and buckets of sterilising equipment could have been enough to terrify me. “We’ll just start with a small syringe” she said. That was the image that terrified me until I realised she didn’t mean needles! I was taught how to hand express and produced just a few drops. Then off I went with a brown paper bag full of 1ml syringes and sticky labels, leaving our new born son for the first time.

Express every 3 hours I was told – so sobbing for the baby who was no longer with me I climbed into bed and set my alarm. It was a long night. It was a surreal night. I put on the TV to try to keep me awake as I chased rolling droplets of milk around my boobs, try to catch them into the syringe. It was tricky, almost like some sort of bizarre game! I changed to expressing into a bottle, but the tiny droplets took up such a pitiful amount of space that I reverted back to the trusty syringe.

There’s not much on TV at that time of night and I switched over to news 24. I expected that to be quiet too, but instead I found myself watching rolling news of riots breaking out across London. I knew I was exhausted; I knew I was probably in shock – but really?! My whole world was turning upside down!

NG tubes

NG tubes

Over the next few days I continued to hand express and would proudly present increasing sized syringes of my milk. I would watch as tiny amounts – 1ml / 2ml would be given to our baby through his naso-gastric tube. Day 3 came and I was told it was time for the pump! The machine whirred as it pumped. Your milk should be coming in around now I was told.

10mls, 20mls – sometimes 30mls. It wasn’t enough to keep up with my babies increasing demands. “Don’t focus too much on it”, one nurse told me – stress won’t help your milk come in. Then another nurse would tell me “You need to be producing more, we won’t have enough for your baby.”

Everything revolved around expressing. Was I doing something wrong? Why couldn’t I produce more? Other mums would enter the expressing room and fill bottle after bottle – I couldn’t even get half way.

“Are you producing anymore?” I was constantly asked. My answer was always the same.

“How about expressing by the cot side – that might make you feel closer to your baby”. It had the opposite effect and instead reinforced the distance that there was between me and my baby.

And then came the day I was told there wasn’t enough of my milk left – they would need to top up with donor milk. I was devastated. I had failed.

But then it became a relief. My baby wouldn’t go hungry. He wouldn’t be left without milk. I was producing what I could and would continue to do so, but in some way the pressure slowly lifted. I never produced much. On good days I would get 60mls, occasionally 70mls, but generally my expressing number was 30mls.

first breastfeed

first breastfeed

Breastfeeds were introduced slowly as he grew – giving him a chance to just ‘practice’ to start with. “Putting him to your breast will help with your milk supply,” I was told.

My expressing number stayed at 30ml.

“Domperidone may help” – I stayed at 30ml.

“Are you drinking enough water”, “Are you getting enough rest” (seriously!), “Are you eating well?” (Hospital canteen sandwiches that were grabbed during a quick break from the ward…)

I stayed at 30ml.

Then one day things started to change. I didn’t produced masses, but just enough to see that all NG feeds were from my expressed breast milk with no top ups. It had happened by surprise and although I knew that his demand would go up again, I felt like I’d achieved a small victory in finally meeting his needs.

My victory was short lived. My increasing milk supply was short lived.

The SCBU nurses had watched as my confidence along with my increasing milk supply had grown. They were letting me room-in to establish breastfeeding. We were about to go home. The moses basket was ready and waiting. Then came the worst day of my life. My tiny baby stopped breathing in front of me. We were rushed via resus straight back into intensive care.

We were right back at the beginning and so was my milk supply. It never recovered. My expressing number wasn’t even 30mls any more. More like a pitiful 15ml.

All important cuddlesThe event made me realise though that it isn’t down to whether you are doing things right or wrong. So much of it is to do with the alien environment in which you find yourself. To do with your own emotional and physical needs as you process the trauma of your early delivery.  You are sometimes made to feel like expressing breast milk is the best and only thing you can do for your early baby. I found that the best thing I could do for my baby was to hold him and to be close to him. The nurses in SCBU would say that he would get too clingy, that he would want holding all the time.

But how could he? He’d waited so long for that first cuddle and now still spent so much time in his cot by himself.

And afterwards – He didn’t turn into that clingy baby, instead he grew into content and settled baby. I continued to breastfeed on discharge, but always topped up with a bottle. It was tiring for him though, so the breastfeeds gradually reduced.

Looking back now I realised that in total I had expressed and breastfed, as well as topping up with formula for a total of 5 months. I guess that’s not bad for a 30ml mum!



17 thoughts on “30ml Mum

  1. Pingback: Feeding a baby born too soon | The Smallest Things

  2. mzguided

    What an honest and raw account of your experience. I know lots of Mums (including myself) who would relate to the emotions you felt. I would love to reblog this on the Milky Mums blog (www.milkymums.org.au) which features the stories of Mums breastfeeding in NICUs (we’ve already included your site as a great resource).


      1. claire Cunliffe

        I’m reading this whilst expressing, my 23+3 twins are still in NICU. I find expressing one of the most horrible things to do and i also understand the pressure. I took it as produce milk or your twins will die, obviously I was putting myself under so much pressure. I ended up with milk blisters after the first week, its one of the hardest things i’ve done / still doing.


  3. Eugy Lim

    I knew breastfeeding is quite challenging hence I started collecting my colostrum come week 32, a lot of research stated that colostrum harvesting will induce labour, I think that was such a false representation of the figures as a lot of mum who has got medical condition harvest their colostrum earlier knowing that their baby will be premature.Naomi was born 8 days after her due date. By then I have good 50 ml of colostrum that I harbested by hand everyday since week 32
    When Naomi was two days old she had an episode where she gone all blue ! And I quickly feed her all the colostrum that I have been freezing in the past few months! We then went to Alder Hey hospital. After check up , medical team confirms that she has got tongue tie, a condition stopping her from feeding efficiently. And I starting pumping from day 3! I am using hospital graded pump that I hired weeks before she was born. And we are very happy that I am exclusively pumping now! Naomi is growing and no sign of stopping!
    Keep up with the pumping , don’t give up, the more you pump and the more you empty your Breast the more milk will come in and you will pump more effociently.
    People just don’t give exclusive pumping mum enough credit ! Knowing how hard it was especially your child is in ICU, you are doing great! Xx


  4. cazz78

    I wish i’d seen this back when I went through the same thing with my daughter. I only lasted 6wks and felt like such a failure. I’d pump/express over and over and even took the domperidone, only to be lucky to get 15-20mls. No one ever understood how I felt I was failing my little girl. Thankyou for helping me let go of the guilt, and know I wasnt alone.


  5. Jan

    This is almost exactly what happened with me and my preemie son. I rarely if ever was able to express more than 30ml and despite trying so many different options (domperidone, feeding on demand, cluster feeding, drinking buckets of water, expressing between feeds, eating oatmeal….!!!) nothing would increase my supply. It was even delaying his exit from the SCBU as his weight wouldn’t rise. i felt like such a failure having to top up with formula, I felt I’d let him down. It took me a very lo g time to reconcile my feelings, eventually I accepted that he simply got some immunity and goodness from me and the extra calories from the formula, when I accepted that it made it easier. We lasted 6 months in all, once he started on solids breastfeeding for that little amount became too much effort and he self weaned. I don’t regret fighting for every last ml, to me it was worth it and I’d do it again on a heartbeat!!!


  6. Becky francis

    This is exactly how I feel and felt. Such an honest account of exactly how it feels. I never expressed more than 80ml in one go and that was only once. Usually on average it would be 30-40ml from both breasts. I used to hide the bottle when I left the expressing room to put it in the fridge as I was afraid the nurses would notice the small amount in the bottle. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t even produce enough for my little man. At the bfinjo h it was ok, we had quite a large stock in the freezer but I couldn’t keep up with his needs and we had to Introduce formula top ups. I was so upset…..it seemed like the only thing I could do for my baby was to give him my milk and id failed at that. We never exclusively breast fed, even when we came home I couldn’t as he wouldn’t drink enough to put on weight so we did both. He has been home 4 months now and Has just started to refuse my breast before his bottle. He just doesn’t want it anymore. I’ve been trying just to do it a little bit each day but it upsets him so I give in and give him a bottle. The ironic thing is that now I think I have a lot of milk now as I feel my breasts are full as he is joy drinking from them. I just tell myself I tried my hardest pumping for over 3 months, he is 7 months old now and even though I am upset that we never truly made it in the breastfeeding world I know that he has received antibodies from me and now I must stop as he wants the bottle more. It feels like just another thing I wasn’t quite good enough at…😔 it is a relief too know that I’m not the only mum that has felt this way – even though I wouldn’t wish this situation and feelings it brings with it on anyone, I’m not alone..


  7. Pingback: Top 10 of 2015! | The Smallest Things

  8. Joanna fisher

    OMG I thought it was just me, my twins were born at 26 weeks and I struggled to get my milk started. I always felt I was letting my twins down and the pressure was just unbelievable. My little boy had NEC so he could only have my milk and my little girl had to have a mixture of Pepsi junior and my milk. I could only ever produce 30mls and because my little boy was so poorly I’d be running to the hospital at 4am delivering milk to get him through. Other mams would come into Neo natal with bagfuls of milk and I would get so angry with myself that I couldn’t produce that. They put me on domperidone which was amazing for two weeks but then I went back to normal. It had to be the most stressful time of my life and when the nurses started talking about donor milk it’s just stressed me out even more. I know exactly how you felt. Now the twins are 20 months and eat anything they come in contact with.


  9. Abbey

    As a nurse that worked on NICU for 3 years I watched mum after mum go through this very thing…I watched as they expressed 8-10 times a day for weeks on end and ‘still only’ get 20,30,40mls each time. (‘still only’ been their words, not mine). Personally i think getting even 10mls per expression after going through such a premature labour, watching your tiny, vulnerable baby lay in an incubator for weeks on end and watch as nurses would care for your baby when all you want to do is care for them yourself is amazing! No matter how much milk you express, all that matters is you are doing your best! Your baby would rather have a happy mummy not a stressed mummy because you feel you can’t produce enough milk. Your baby is not going to thank you for how much milk you express, they are going to thank you for been there when they want you and for making them feel safer. All you mum’s that have got / had babies on NICU I admire you, you are stronger than I could ever hope to be!


  10. Cath Harvey

    I salute all of you. I work as a breastfeeding support worker in our local hospital. In this job we deal with Antenatal, Post Natal, Neonatal and Paediatrics (AandE once!) when we have our Mommies on the ward whose baby who is on Neonatal I feel very humbled to be helping them catch those so precious drops of colostrum sometimes its a few mls sometimes its 0.1ml which is still useful for oral cares and sometimes nil is produced, these mommies desperately need skin to skin with babies or sight touch and smell. Neonatal can be frightening for mommies and daddies and tiring especially if mom has other children, has had a C Section, lives a distance away or has had to give birth 100 miles away because no cots in Neonatal are available, Its a pleasure to move mom onto a pump and watch all that lovely milk being produced…….and still when you can only produce 5ml to 10ml of mature milk because of Insufficient Glandular Material I Salute you, Let us too celebrate the moms who donate and help these precious babies, I salute you.


  11. Lauren

    I feel like I could have written this word for wors myself as it is pretty much exactly the same as what is currently happening with me. Thank you to the Author and to the smallest things for sharing this and letting us know that we are not alone.


  12. Heather

    It was just the same for me when my son was born by Caesarean almost 19 years ago at 28 weeks. I produced tiny amounts of milk and felt such a failure when I finally made the decision to give up and bottle feed him. But then I realised after chatting with a nurse that it was the right decision and the best way for him to start getting ready to come home. He came home a week before his due date and he’s now a healthy teenager who is into weightlifting! Such a change from the tiny baby and small child! The formula milk certainly never did him any harm!


  13. Nichola

    This was also me and it really does mess with your emotions. I eventually gave up after 12 weeks as I was making myself ill thinking if I didn’t get enough my baby son would suffer. No one truly understands the struggles of an NICU mammy until they have been through it themselves. Well done for sticking at it and congratulations on the birth of your beautiful baby x



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