Sunday, January 4, 2015

Breastfeeding a Toddler in the PICU

On Christmas Eve, my 21-month-old fell headfirst onto a brick landing. We quickly found ourselves in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit to treat a skull fracture and bleeding of the brain. During our 3-day stay, breastfeeding became our greatest strength and refuge (outside the support and prayers of family, of course). These are some thoughts about our experience:

1) Hydration and hunger. By the time little K had his first meal following his accident, it had been nearly 20 hours since he last ate. What's more, he was vomiting as a result of the injury, so he didn't actually hold down food and water until a few hours later. Despite that, he required IV fluids only once during that time. The nurses marveled over how well-hydrated he was, which I attribute directly to the almost constant nursing we'd been doing while in the hospital. Though my supply was not nearly what it had been, I was able to provide for my toddler's most basic needs.

2) Comfort and calm. With the exception of inserting IVs and any large scans that needed to be done, every procedure and vitals check was completed while K was latched. Though he was obviously uncomfortable and hated all the poking and prodding, he would stay still and quiet while doctors and nurses repeatedly took his temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, felt his head, or flushed his IVs. Though he certainly cried often from fear and pain, he could always be calmed by the breast, and nursed so often that he was probably latched more often than not. In truth, my nipples hurt almost as badly as when he was a newborn, but I wouldn't have traded that ability to comfort him for anything.

3) Surprising attitudes toward breastfeeding. Maybe I've just spent too long in hard core hippie California, but I was completely caught off-guard by some of the reactions I received toward my openly breastfeeding a toddler during a crisis. I expected medical professionals, at least (and especially in pediatrics), to be pretty supportive, but many of them were downright squeamish. One nurse got flustered and closed the curtain on us, saying "You don't want anyone seeing THAT. It's an intimate moment." When I thanked her but assured her that I didn't mind (or care) if anyone saw, she began complaining about her friend who "just whips it out at the food court." Another nurse commented "Well, this isn't the most PRIVATE of places," even though we were behind a curtain and it was just us and her. One doctor practically ran away when he walked in on me breastfeeding, muttering "I'll come back when you're finished," and I had to yell for him to come back. And the majority of the staff did an awkward double-take at first.

On the other hand, there were a few bright spots: one of our favorite nurses, a guy, never batted an eye or made a comment. He made sure K was comfortably on the boob before checking him, and chattered cheerfully the whole time as though breastfeeding was total normal (which it is, but ya know). And one nurse passed us while K was pulling at my shirt and said "He looks like he wants to eat! I breastfed both of mine until 30 months!" Still, I was surprised at overall attitude I saw.

There was also the fact that I was giving my son antibodies that may have protected him from some of the nasty germs that inevitably circulate in a hospital, but since all three of us left with a cold, that wasn't quite as successful as advertised.

Naturally, it was a pretty horrible and frightening experience, but I feel that it would have been so much worse if we were not still breastfeeding. A week later, K is still nursing very frequently, whereas we were down to only twice a day before the accident. Also previously, I was working on setting boundaries with him, limiting when and where he could nurse, but that went out the window during his recovery. I can't help but wonder if this may push back weaning a bit (I was not planning to actively wean yet anyway, but I felt like he might lose interest soon). For now, I'm just happy to continue providing what my little man needs.

See also: Nursing in the NICU

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