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Changing the Definition of “Nursing” Your Preemie

When my son was born on his due date, the midwife placed him on my chest before his umbilical cord was cut.  We stared into each other’s eyes, exchanging telepathic messages.

Mine to him – You’re here.  You’re real.  His to me – I am here.  You’re my mother.

After several minutes of this misty-eyed, love-at-first sight exchange, the midwife gently slid Tucker a little further down my chest, and thus I began what is often deemed to be the second most important contribution as a mother.  “He’s a natural,” the midwife had said and a broad, proud smile had covered my face.

I was a mom nursing her baby.  And I would do so for the following 11 months.

And then came my daughter, Andie.

Not born on her due date.

By a long shot.

She arrived by emergency c-section at 25 weeks.

I saw her for the first time several hours later blanketed in a tangle of tubes and wires inside a plastic box.

There were no tender moments.

There was no mind speak between us.  Just the voice in my head screaming, Run!

There was no baby on my chest.  Just an industrial powered machine delivered to my bedside with the instructions, Put a suction cup over each breast and let the machine pull out the milk.

Or not.

The machine could not do the work of my baby.

My mind and body refused to cooperate, to let go, to let down.

I produced nothing.  Not one drop of milk.

And I was devastated.

I sought advice from with the lactation consultants nearly everyday.  I tried a prescription medicine that left my body covered in an itchy red rash.  I tried an ancient Greek herb called Fenugreek, and brewer’s yeast, and meditation, and a nightly pint of Guinness.

But nothing worked.

I was a failure.

I couldn’t nurse my baby.

Today, my daughter is 11.  It took me years and years to recover from the trauma of her birth.  In fact, there are still days when I wonder if I’ll ever be fully healed.

But there was a moment when I found forgiveness for my inability to nurse my daughter.

It came when I read Webster’s definition of what it means to nurse, or more to the point, to be a nurse – One that looks after, fosters, or advises; A person who cares for the sick or infirm.

Reading that definition caused me to pause and think and remember all the care involved with Andie.

For 84 days I drove back and forth to a hospital an hour away from our home to sit by her bedside and read her stories and sing her songs.

For 11 months, before a reversal surgery, I flushed out and changed the ostomy bag attached to the right side of her abdomen.

For 3 years I opened my front door to physical therapists, occupational therapist and speech therapists and then dutifully filed their early intervention reports in the manila folder with her name written across the top.

For hours upon hours I lay by her bedside, pointing a nebulizer at her sleepy pink lips, begging the Albuterol vapors to find their way into her struggling lungs.

And with that I realized that although I did not nurse my daughter in the traditional way we think of nursing, I did nurse her in a way that meant I gave her everything my body could give.

Eventually I came to see that I must be a nurse to myself as well.  That in order to care for my children as best I can, I have to take care of myself, too.  And part of that began with forgiveness and recognition.  Forgiving myself for all that I did and did not do, and recognizing that in fact, I did nurse my daughter.

Kasey Mathews About Kasey Mathews

Kasey Mathews (NH) is a mother of two, her son, Tucker born on his due date at an even 8 pounds, and her daughter, Andie born at 25 weeks, weighing 1 pound 11 ounces. Kasey is a writer and author of the memoir, "Preemie: Lessons in Love, Life and Motherhood," in which she openly and honestly writes about her fears and uncertainties as a preemie mom. Kasey considers herself a student in the lessons of everyday life, and regularly observes and finds unexpected meaning in seemingly ordinary events. Her life-lesson stories and much more can be found on her website, www.kaseymathews.com. Follow her on Twitter.


  1. I just finished reading your book, nodding in recognition of so many similar experiences and crying at all-too familiar parts. My twins were born at 24 weeks and spent 133 days in the NICU. I also had a really hard time nursing them. I have a future post on here about that. Thanks for sharing your story.

    • Michelle, I am so honored that you read Preemie and hope you found it both helpful and healing. Your entire crew is marvelously gorgeous (I’ve seen them on your website!) and I can’t wait to read your breast feeding post. It’s always so comforting to know that others have shared a similar path. XO

  2. Lovely, lovely post. I cannot say I have experienced what you have, but I am a professional who works with NICU moms. I cannot wait to share this with them.

    The insight you offer is simply beautiful.

    Thank you so much for writing this!


  3. I find so much comfort in your post! My first son was born at 30 weeks, after going into spontanious labor after a very “boring pregnancy”, being in magnesium for 18 hours, my 3lb 5oz boy was born. In the delivery room, while trying to deal with the shock of it all, the nurse practioner said – your breastfeeding right?! As if I chose not to, I was the worst mom on the planet. I said, yes, I’m going to try, but I had had a breast reduction 12 years earlier – not having a wildest dream that I’d have a preemie-. I pumped and pumped and was getting next to nothing. I cried and tried every medication, herbal remedy, and technique I could think of, and after 28 days I gave up – with the support of a very helpful lactation consultant, who supported my decision to quit. My second son, born at 31 weeks, I had a little better experience but still couldn’t “keep up” with his demands. I believe as a mother, we are our children’s nurse, whether or not we are able to provide breast milk for them. Thank you for your post!

    • I’m so glad my story brought you comfort, Becky. Hearing yours brings me comfort, too, knowing I wasn’t alone in the way I felt and responded to the breast feeding pressure. I’m so sorry you had to go through such struggles, but you know you did all you could do and I’m so happy that you see how you’re nursing your children in so many ways! XO

  4. I’m in tears because this is something I’ve been struggling with. While I was pregnant I was determined to breastfeed my baby – nothing but the best, such a bonding experience! Then he arrived 13 weeks early. Ten weeks later, I’ve tried everything – at one point I was pumping 12x a day trying to increase my pitiful supply. I’ve cut back a little, but I barely make enough for one of my son’s feeds. As he gets closer to coming home, I’m trying to decide if I should continue pumping to at least maintain long enough to *try* nursing. But I’m trying to reconcile the decision that I’d rather spend the time bonding with my son than the breast pump with the fact that I won’t be bonding while breastfeeding. I suspect I’ll come back to this post a few times as a reminder that I haven’t failed to nurse, I’m just doing it in different ways.

    • Jennifer, your story reminds me so much of my own. My expectation to nurse, my determination and unwillingness to give up trying. I was pumping round the clock to with no results other than frustration. You’ll know what to do. It sounds like you already have a strong maternal instinct that will guide your course once you have your boy at home. I’ll be sending lots of love and positive energy your way! XO

  5. nice story to share, as i`m a mother of a preemie baby too, it`s hard at the first time when i came home without baby for couple of weeks, looked at his tiny body in incubator alone, an so on that i couldn`t compare my condition with other normal baby mother. it`s good to know that somewhere there`s mother felt the same way that i feel. because it`s an unusual experience and it`s good to share.

  6. Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful article. I had quite a bit of difficulty breastfeeding our premature baby- there were many moments of tears and feeling like a complete failure. I can so relate to your attempts to try anything to increase your milk supply. I love how you expanded your perspective and focused on the broader definition of “nursing.”


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