I gave birth to my twins, J and M, when they reached 33 weeks gestation. They were 7 weeks shy of being a fully cooked 40 weeks along when they were born, and 2 weeks early even for my minimum goal of 35 weeks. We were incredibly fortunate that they didn’t have any serious complications, but both babies still needed special care in the NICU.
I’ve always been a parent who researches, so I was pretty well-versed on the phases of development the girls were going through at various points in my pregnancy. Still, seeing my preemies brought it home in a visceral way that no research could have done.
Both M and J were rather furry when they were born, covered with lanugo, or the in-utero hairs that usually fall off well before babies emerge from the womb. I could only distinguish this fur from their eyebrows with the help of the thin line of hairlessness that separated their foreheads from their brows.
The girls’ skin was loose on their bones. After all, they hadn’t yet reached the milestone of 35 weeks, when their baby fat would make them newborn plump. Without the natural insulation of my body or their own body fat, they had to stay in warming isolettes. They couldn’t maintain their body temperature, so the hospital staff did so artificially. On two priceless occasions, we were allowed to provide kangaroo care, placing our tiny little babies inside our shirts, against the warmth of the skin on our chests, letting them bond to us.
Infants who will be born full-term are still getting their nutrition from the umbilical tube at 33 weeks and nearly 2 months afterward. Oxygen and nutrients cross from mommy’s blood to baby’s in the placenta. Getting energy and the building blocks to grow their bodies doesn’t take any work on their part. They can focus on growing, practicing sucking and kicking and, if they’re lucky enough to share the womb with Sissy or Bro, play with their best bud.
My girls were born at 3 lbs 6 oz and 3 lbs 9 oz. They weren’t to have the easy nutrition the placenta granted them. Instead, they were going to have to gain weight with the help of calories they ingested orally. At 33 weeks, babies are usually well practiced at the art of sucking, but they’re not built to use that skill to take in all their nutrition. To help them out the nurses threaded feeding tubes up our teeny babies’ noses, directing food into their stomachs.
That food came in the form of Enfamil Lipil, a high calorie formula for preemies. M and J needed nutrition to provide not only the basics they would have received from my body, but the extra energy they needed to breathe and otherwise experience life outside the womb. Much as I was committed to breastfeeding, breast milk wouldn’t cut it. It just didn’t have enough calories.
Besides, my body was trying to figure out what was going on. Were there live babies to be fed, or was it time to get out of reproductive mode? I’ve known moms with micro-preemies whose milk never came in, their bodies interpreting the early birth as a miscarriage instead of a live birth. Despite my pumping every 3 hours started a couple of hours after the birth, it took days for my milk to come in. A full-term newborn can afford to live on colostrum for a day or two, since they have plenty of energy saved up in all that squishy baby fat. My babies weren’t squishy.
The nurses at the hospital were (with one exception) fantastic. They took every teeny tiny drop of colostrum or milk I could squeeze out. To retrieve it, they filled the doll-sized bottles I pumped into with formula to retrieve every spray of breastmilk. They split that formula in half and fed it to each of my daughters through their feeding tubes.
I hadn’t done any research into formula before M and J’s birth, being completely committed to exclusive breastfeeding. It never occurred to me to check the ingredients on our hospital-issued formula. I thought of it as medication, something beyond my area of expertise that I should entrust to medical professionals to prescribe. Imagine my surprise, then, when years later I finally read the ingredients and discovered that my babies’ high calorie formula got its high calories from corn syrup. Corn syrup was actually the first ingredients, meaning that there was more of it in the formula than any other ingredient. The composition of the formula has since been changed, but boy, did I feel silly claiming that my daughters’ first refined sugar was the cake at their first birthday party.
Sugar is sugar, I know, but I prefer to eat and feed my family minimally processed foods. I don’t like the idea of ingesting trace amounts of stuff used in processing. Don’t get me wrong. I buy prepared foods like sliced bread, lunch meats, chocolate (lot of chocolate) and crackers. I try to steer clear of non-sugar sweeteners and high fructose corn syrup. I like ingredients to don’t force me to fight the urge to start drawing out organic molecule structures.
We live and learn. If I were to do it again, I would research everything going into my newborns’ bodies. Perhaps I would decide that that brand of high calorie formula was the way to go. Perhaps not.
I always read the ingredients now.
Sadia is raising her 7 year-old identical twin daughters, M and J, in the Austin, TX area. She is divorced and works in higher ed information technology. She is originally from the UK and Bangladesh, but has lived in the US since college.