Breast-feeding story: Maeve

My 12-year-old daughter Maeve was a full day old before I met her.

I had suffered an amniotic fluid embolism before she was born by emergency Caesarean section, and spent the night of her birth, and the following day, in the intensive-care unit at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

My obstetrician promised me Jello if I would walk across the skybridge back to Prentice Women's Hospital, the NMH facility where Maeve was born. The real incentive, though, was the chance to see Maeve and hold her. She was quite a little beauty, with bounteous dark hair.

I don't remember much of our early experience of breast-feeding but it progressed slowly. Maeve, who was just shy of seven pounds at birth, had had several bottles of formula before we met, and the formula kept coming, along with breast-feeding.

No one told me this at the time, but the fact that I had hemorrhaged during Maeve's birth raised the question of whether I would be able to breast-feed at all. Severe blood loss can cause a condition called Sheehan's Syndrome, in which the pituitary gland, starved for oxygen, is damaged to the point where it cannot produce the hormones necessary for lactation. The damage can be partial or total, and can cause other problems as well.

Before Maeve and I went home five days after her birth, a couple of her pediatricians went through the drill with me: Every two hours, around the clock, I was to breast-feed, and then "top her off" with formula.

Now, remember, I had nearly died. I had undergone two emergency surgeries, a Caesarean section and a hysterectomy. I had lost a colossal amount of blood and had been pumped so full of fluid that I weighed thirty pounds more walking out of the hospital with a baby in my arms than I had walking in with her in my belly. I had several oozing sores from a reaction to the tape that had held in the needles attached to various drips. I was a wreck.

At home, we had a major learning curve to address. I had been planning to breast-feed Maeve exclusively, as I had done with her sister, Nora, and we knew nothing about bottle-feeding a newborn. My husband, Ben, who had taken several weeks off work, had to buy some bottles. We had to learn on the fly how to sterilize them. (No one in the hospital had addressed the need to sterilize bottles. Maybe they thought everybody owned a dishwasher. We didn't.) In the short-term, we bought prepared formula.

Then there was the every-two-hour feeding protocol. As if. It worked to a degree during the day, when Ben could help me, but our exhausted family slept through most nights, and Maeve regularly went for eight hours without food. She lost a full pound in her first month of life — a dangerous trend for a developing baby.

We had no help. I don't recall anyone from the hospital calling to see how things were going. We were so depleted that we stumbled from task to task, day to day, though we were in contact with Maeve's pediatrician. But I did persist with breast-feeding, and with time, my milk came in. By the time I went in for my six-week check-up, Maeve was gaining weight and thriving.

Perhaps because it was so hard in the beginning, I cherished breast-feeding Maeve. For the two of us, who had shared a near-death experience, it was a daily chance to refresh our bond. We continued on for three years, encountering more and more raised eyebrows as the months passed. One of my doctors in particular, a specialist I saw a couple of times a year, began to grow shrill after a year about the psychological damage I was doing Maeve by tethering her to me by the breast. I ignored him because breast-feeding had made him nervous from the get-go.

I finally stopped because Maeve was in pre-school and the principal, a woman I liked and trusted, told me I was holding back Maeve's social development by continuing to breast-feed her, by that time usually only at bedtime. I think now that the principal was wrong, but we did have to stop some time. I guess.

“For God’s sake, please breast-feed”

A new study, the subject of a story by Nicholas Wade in The New York Times this week, reveals a little more of the magic of breast milk. It turns out that complex sugars in human milk encourage the growth of "good" bacteria that form a lining in a baby's gut, protecting her from dangerous microbes.

The baby can't digest the complex sugar, but the bifido bacteria can. In an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Bruce German, Carlito Lebrilla and David Mills and colleagues describe the "intriguing strategy" lactation represents — to nourish microbes that can in turn protect a baby who has not yet developed an immune system of his own.

Dr. German told Wade, "We were astonished that milk had so much material that the infant couldn’t digest. Finding that it selectively stimulates the growth of specific bacteria, which are in turn protective of the infant, let us see the genius of the strategy — mothers are recruiting another life-form to baby-sit their baby."

The researchers used mass-spectometry-based tools to examine the structures of the complex sugars in breast milk. Their findings made the researchers think that milk holds even more secrets, even perhaps some that could help struggling newborns or even older humans.

Said Dr. Mills, "It’s all there for a purpose, though we’re still figuring out what that purpose is. So for God’s sake, please breast-feed."