The threshold for many issues related to prematurity tends to be 32 weeks and/or 1500 grams. Younger, smaller babies are more likely to have complications such as Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP), brain bleeds, and Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC). These issues can occur in later-term infants but are much less common.
Aside from brain bleeds, NEC is one of the biggest complications that is seen in premature infants. It’s the one that makes providers sweat. It’s terrifying.
It can largely be prevented by the use of breast milk in the first days and weeks of life.
In the first few days healthy term babies will get colostrum, and after 3-5 days it will transition to what we think of when we think of breast milk. Babies are far more effective than a pump, especially at getting the thicker, stickier colostrum.
This presents a problem for babies who are unable to breast feed. And of course, many of those babies can be found in the intensive and special care nurseries, weighing under 1500 grams and at less than 32 gestational weeks of age.
One of those babies was mine.
Rowan was born at 31 weeks 5 days, and weighed 1446 grams.
After he was born I asked for a pump as soon as I was in a regular room (in my medical records “breast pump delivered to bedside” is listed under the “procedure” category). And I pumped. And pumped. And nothing came out. I couldn’t even hand express any colostrum. I knew that it would happen eventually, but in this situation time is even more of the essence than in a full term baby. So while I sat tethered to a pump, someone else had already put in the time that would help protect my son.
Somewhere, at some point, a woman had sat connected to a pump, just as I was, and had gotten more than her baby could eat. She went through the hassle and headache of getting cleared to donate. Without knowing where it went, or who it helped, she donated her hard work to Rowan. A few mls at a time, via the NG tube that ran from his nose to his stomach.
From there it worked its magic, helping his tiny body in a myriad of ways. We will never know what bullets were dodged, and that’s okay. All I know is that Rowan was given the best start and the best chance possible.
I had been told that even a drop of colostrum was helpful, as it could be swabbed inside his mouth. You’d better believe that I took them seriously. I was wheeled into the NICU holding a tiny dropper with one precious drop. One. Because it was what I could do for him. It was the first way I got to feel like his mother. It was the one physical connection I had with him, after the others had been severed too early.
But before there was me, there were these generous women. On bad days that makes me sad, a reminder of all that we missed out on. Of the connections that were broken, and the unnatural way they were reforged. But other days I just want to thank these people who may have saved my baby’s life, and be thankful that I will never know for sure.
If you are interested in donating extra milk to a milk bank to save the lives of vulnerable babies like Rowan, visit the Human Milk Banking Association of North America' s website for bank locations and donation information.
Rhiannon Giles is an overwhelmed mother who only occasionally considers giving her children to the circus. She has a sarcasm problem and writes regularly at rhiyaya.com. Her writing has been featured on Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, Pregnant Chicken, National Lampoon, McSweeney's, and many more. To keep up with new posts and see some of her favorites, join her on Facebook and Twitter.