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How breast milk saved her preemie princess

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By Catherine dela Cruz-Britanico

 Catherine Britanico and her youngest daughter Himig

Catherine Britanico and her youngest daughter Himig

In 2014, my daughter Himig came into this world weighing only 1,000 grams. Yes, exactly one kilogram! I delivered her prematurely at 30 weeks and four days in Singapore. Thank God my preemie princess was born strong! Still, she had to stay at the hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for two months because her gut took its rightful time to mature.

During those NICU days, I couldn’t help but cry just looking at Himig in her incubator. I couldn’t even hold her properly. The sadness lingered each time I had to leave her in the hospital every single day. If not for my breastmilk, postpartum depression could have easily won over me. I thought to myself, I may not be as skillful as the NICU doctors and nurses, but I am still the one who can provide Himig with the best milk. That helped me a lot and gave me great comfort.

But the struggle in a preemie’s life is indeed real! From one kg, Himig’s weight decreased during the first week then went on fluctuating after that. Little by little, they started feeding her only to be stopped several times because it showed that my daughter had difficulty digesting properly when her milk intake reached a certain level. They suspected an obstruction in her intestines, which is common for premature babies, and that surgery might be needed. Thank God, everything turned out normal after several tests, and close observation proved that Himig’s gut just needed more time to strengthen itself.

In those uncertain times, I admit that I did begin to doubt the benefits of what we mothers usually refer to as “liquid gold.” Good thing the doctors believed otherwise and assured me that breast milk would be of great help not only in helping Himig gain the desired weight she needed, but in healing/developing her gut as well. With that in mind, I went on to pumping and eating malunggay cooked in various ways to help increase my milk supply. Have you tried adobo with malunggay? Oh, yes I did!

The day came when we were finally discharged from the hospital and I couldn’t wait to nurse her overnight. Sadly, Himig refused to latch on me. I was wrong to think that our latching sessions in the hospital weeks before we could go home were enough. I was too excited that it did not occur to me that our room would be a whole new environment for my preemie princess. After our stressful first night together, I made sure to directly breastfeed her as often as she allowed me to until the day she never asked to be bottle-fed anymore. I succeeded after a week!

Himig weighed only 1,000 grams and had to stay in a Singapore hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for two months before her parents could bring her home

Himig weighed only 1,000 grams and had to stay in a Singapore hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for two months before her parents could bring her home

From the beginning, my husband and I were warned that a preemie’s condition would be unpredictable. That we would need to be always on our toes no matter what. Before Himig was discharged, I was even given a seminar on how to give CPR for babies along with a book that I could consult from time to time.

By God’s grace, Himig’s growth and development went well each day. The scheduled check-ups with her attending physicians confirmed it, too. The physiotherapist was also proud at how my daughter responded to all the activities prepared for her. Every affirmation brought a huge relief to us. That included the importance of breastfeeding. Since it was a smart choice, I decided to do it for as long as I could.

The weather in Singapore is known to be “bipolar,” one minute it was raining (with thunder and lightning most of the time), but after an hour or two or just a few minutes, you would find the sun shining as if nothing had happened—the kind of weather that easily causes common colds, cough, or fever if you have a weak immune system. We’re so blessed that Himig adapted to it quite well! Thanks to Jesus and the benefits of breastfeeding, she must have gotten enough anti-bodies to fight off the viruses around.

Grateful for Himig’s continuous health, we began to celebrate each of her milestone over a slice of cake in a café or a simple dinner at home—something we were not able to do properly during her first two months. Just like the song by The Police, “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,”every little progress that Himig made was a blessing for us! Days passed by so fast and the next thing we knew, it was time to feed her some solids. Little did I know that we were on for another challenge. Indeed, our preemie princess was born a fighter! From fighting for her life in the incubator, she started her fight against anything that would enter her mouth, except my breast.

Due to her “gut” issues in the past, I decided to wait for Himig’s eighth month before I started to introduce her to solid food. My plan was to prepare only organic food. I began with what worked with my firstborn son—squash, mashed potato, boiled carrots, banana, and soup. Then I gave in to ready-made food (Cerelac, Gerber) from the supermarket and French fries, too! Unfortunately, Himig refused them all and that includes water!

Believe me, I tried all possible ways, every trick I could come up with, and almost all kinds of innovative tools that I found online or in store endorsed and testified effective by other moms out there. Nothing worked! Meal times turned out to be a scene straight out of a telenovela. It was frustrating and at the same time heartbreaking to see Himig stare at me with weeping eyes begging desperately so that I would stop making her eat. When I did, she would immediately find comfort in my breast, drinking milk as if she was starved for days.

After a month, I decided to consult a specialist. We found out that my daughter had a psychological trauma resulting from fear of eating. It’s a disorder that scares her to put anything inside her mouth. That explained why Himig was the type of baby who could play with a piece of paper or any kind of toy for a long time without biting or chewing on them unlike most normal curious kids her age. All the while, I was thinking it was just a good trait. Apparently, she developed this fear possibly from all the procedures my princess went through during her confinement in the neonatal ward.

Recent photo of Himig with mom Catherine and brother RhythmRecent photo of Himig with mom Catherine and brother Rhythm

Recent photo of Himig with mom Catherine and brother Rhythm

We immediately proceeded to therapy. Himig showed a good photographic memory, so I was advised to change all cutleries, including the high chair I used during our month-long mealtime wars. I started by introducing her to other forms of liquid: water, vitamins, and freshly squeezed orange juice using dropper and syringe. During mealtime, she would join us at the table with her new set of spoon, fork, plate, and glass, but with no pressure of making her eat. She was just there to watch us and make her see that there was nothing wrong with eating. As I was still trying to win her trust, I was encouraged and assured by doctors that I needed to continue boosting my milk supply because that was exactly what Himig needed while in the process of overcoming her fears. True enough, she may be underweight for her age, but she’s never sickly. In fact, when we decided to move back, I was thankful for how she easily adapted to the weather from a mostly sunny Singapore to the rainy “typhoon” season of the Philippines.

To make sure that eating is the only problem we need to address, we also had Himig take a Development Evaluation and the report showed that her locomotor skills were way beyond her age along with her eye and hand coordination and her ability to reason through tasks, including speed of working and precision.

As of now, Himig is two years and eight months. She’s only been eating food for a year and a month, but has continuously been breastfed for 32 months already. She’s still small when you compare her to her batch mates but I am not in a hurry for her to catch up with them. She rarely gets fever so I am assured that she’s doing just fine. Himig may catch a cold or cough sometimes, but usually such bouts last for three to four days only even without me giving her any medicines. She has smooth, fair skin even when I fail to apply lotion daily. I may not give breastfeeding all the credit for these things, but I am and will always be thankful for how breastfeeding helped my child and me in our journey.

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