Breastfeeding in Trying Circumstances

My third child and I had a difficult beginning. She initially breastfed, as I assumed all babies did – onto the breast, attached, suckling, and swallowing – normal. Then she descended into a life or death decline.

During this time, I was exceptionally grateful that I had had no trouble feeding her elder brothers. My assumption that breasts were for babies of course they needed me to survive – was unshakeable all through the following process.

My first born had a very asthmatic father, and I noticed that whenever I ate some cheeses, or at all deviated from my then strict vegan diet, he lost his breathing rhythm, and sounded a little wheezy. This spelt trouble. His father had been a highly allergic baby who tore open his skin with eczema,and was often in an oxygen tent(the only treatment prior to asthma medication) in his childhood.

This made me a very committed nursing mother. What was I to give a baby who was this sensitive to allergenic substances, as a supplement if my milk to dry up?

Hence, I continued throughout my time with baby number three, as she lapsed into a coma and nearly died, just knowing that without me still nourishing her, she would not make it.

My body would provide exactly the right mix of antibodies to fit whatever she was exposed in the hospital environment, as I was there being exposed also. My body would know what to do,which was to keep her alive at all costs.

She must have known this was my agenda, as she wanted to die.


Exhausted mother intent on saving baby regardless – after ICU intensive care –

Then just being – to see what would happen next . .

I was in a war zone – she not wanting to be here and catching every obscure diseases going,and me refusing to give in and let her.

Initially, as she sunk into a battle with Toxoplasmosis, (from us having cats and me unknowingly carrying it) she was unable to suck, and had to be tube fed.

The colostrum rich, yellow rich first milk (defrosted from frozen), recolonized her gut and assisted in her return to life.
See more here

I had saved the milk, from when I had been engorged. I just thought to do it – never knowing how important a step in her recovery this would be.

After a few days of her nearly dying – with every day worse,and no baby to suckle to keep the milk in – it all but dried up. The hospital had neither a breast pump to borrow nor a place for me to express. I was taking twenty strong anti stress B-complexes over a 24-hour period. Sleeping was not happening as we were doing deathwatch. My urine did not even change colour – (you know how it does when you start a B-complex or a Multivitamin?)

I got the social worker to give me a cafeteria pass, so I could feed me – to feed my daughter. They seemed to think me highly unusual – I wouldn’t go home to my other children, and let them sort the problem out, as they advised. As it happened, I learnt that when a very ill child is in hospital, a mother’s eye is life-saving.

Eventually I tracked down a Nursing Mothers’ machine,which actually damaged a breast – I was more persistent than is probably expected!

So, I decided that she would have one last chance at breastfeeding. If nothing, then I would wait until she came home, and re-establish then. I never doubted that my body would not re-lactate.

As she marginally recovered, all commented on her strong suck – doctors and nurses and even her father’s fingers. Would she attempt feeding – let alone suck my finger? No. We were in a battle of wills on another level.

At that next feed, the baby who would have not a bar of me took 40mls! (We were test weighing). This set the scene for the rest of our lives together.

Whenever I gave up what I wanted to do, and went with the ‘Universe’, handing it over without desired outcome, better than what I had previously wanted would always happen.

This was a very hard thing for me to do – thy will, not mine. My daughter was my greatest teacher in life, and this lesson – of stepping out of personality was the major one for me.

After discovering that she would live, it became even more important that the milk return. By now what was being expressed was less than what had been leaking away, when my breasts were so hard that I could not raise my arms up at all to hang the washing out. I had breast tissue around into my back at one stage!!

I visited a friend, also an acupuncturist, and had de-stressing treatments.

I was very grateful that I had breastfeed successfully before, and had no doubt that this was my daughter’s salvation.

Life gradually improved, as she stabilized and was allowed into the general ward – in a room where I could sleep over, assisting the milky return. She was deeply in a coma – partially drug induced – but still had a sucking reflex. She started to stack on the weight, as you do when you are not moving – and the next stage, trying to get any form of life happening for her, took over.

We arrived home six weeks later, and started the slow return to body functioning. I did not know that besides massive brain injury from the toxo-plasmosis, she was also highly autistic. This gradually dawned on me, as my precious baby did all she could to wipe me out of her existence. I called the dance of one of us trying to make contact and the other trying to avoid that contact – our swan mating ritual.

Autism is not as easily remedied as the massive neurological insult. I found amazing programmes that could rescue baby brain function. Autism is something else though.

Without any form of recognition that I was special, with the opposite happening – absolute refusal to give any indication past active resistance to my mothering efforts, life continued.

She screamed as though standing at the gates of hell and looking in. She projectile vomited. I attributed this to the nasogastric tube that she had had for a week or so.  My friendly chiropractor saved the breastfeeding. A treatment on her cranium would last five days – five days of milk staying where it could do the most good.

Eventually she ‘grew’ out of this. The screaming continued for the next eight years.  Sleeping was not her favourite activity, as though she had terror waiting if she shut her eyes.

Kathryn aged four – alive and brilliant

This also meant that she refused to let me sit down when feeding her or when she was unsettled. I had to stay rocking her upright. If I tried to gradually lower myself into a rocking chair, and replicate the rocking, all hell broke loose. She would be awake for another few hours, before wearing herself out with the ensuing screaming fit.

In the middle of all of this, she managed to get bronchiolitis not a good move. The wheezing and fighting for breath was alarming – can’t breathe! Apparently baby inter-costal muscles are too underdeveloped to have asthma and for medication to work. She had no treatment – except antibiotics and time.

The pediatrician wanted to hospitalize her. I had just come from there, with my own fresh trauma to resolve and the knowledge that everyone else’s screaming babies would keep at least me awake, if not my disturbed daughter. I opted to self nurse.

This was no different from before, except that I now had to express away a lot of the flow, and let her suckle on a near empty breast. This meant that the fighting for breath was slightly eased, as she stayed hydrated. Now I had to stand whilst rocking and jiggling her.

If you have not had anything to do with a massively autistic person, you could think that this (what is this?) was a discipline issue. It is a hell issue for the baby. God knows what her perception of life was, but it in no way resembled life as we know it.

Years later, when I consulted with a metaphysical counselor, she picked up a brutal past life ritual murder.

My daughter was reliving her last half hour of this life and regardless of whether it is ‘right’ or not –this story did help me to make sense of the abject horror that was her first few years’ reality.

She would arch away from me screaming, and was so much worse if I put her down. It was as though she was in a horror movie – as the star performer. We cannot know what is happening – regardless of the physical apparent reality as we see it.

How did I Survive?

  • Did I have a supportive husband? No.
  • Did I have other children? Yes.
  • Did I have family support? No – they were all in NZ, and like friends, too traumatized themselves to be any thing other than a burden.
  • Did friends rally? Only one – everyone else was so horrified at the result of my pregnancy that they all faded away.

This sort of response is easy to deal with as there is no time for self, let alone keeping relationships together.  It is no use trying to help others cope with what you are only managing to keep above it yourself.

Did I keep breastfeeding?
I knew that her only chance for life – given her dreadful medical injuries and prognosis – was with me as her life support.

We, as women are actually very strong willed/bodied and inner resourced when we can access this.  I would say that having a newborn delivered straight onto my belly, nursed immediately, and bonded mammal-to-mammal allowed the enraged lioness within me to come out fighting.

I am not convinced my daughter got her part of the deal, but I had it in excess. She is now nearly twenty years old, has not fulfilled her vegetative prognosis, and is still highly autistic and massively brain injured. She was successfully breast fed through a number of other horrendous diseases.

I decided to stop feeding her when she finally ‘got’ that it was something that she could only do with me – her mum – who she absolutely refused to even look at – such are the joys of being an autistic child’s mother!  This happened when she was finally 2 years and 4 months old – a testament to maternal bloody mindedness.

Oh if only the newborns of today had their mums’ innate maternity this intact.

I believe that a safe birth is one where mum is totally on deck as a mammal – not as a civilised woman. Where baby is totally present, alert and able to get that she/he belongs to this mum and that they belong together.  I believe that only then,we as mothers are able to meet whatever life throws at us next.  WRITTEN 9 YEARS ago . .

Heather Bruce is a mother of four aged 16 to 34. She has found her greatest life learnings through being their mother, and is passionate about others having the total experiences that being woman is SUPPOSED to allow them – real and of note.