Monday, June 21, 2010

Formula Supplementation in the Hospital

Today I am re-posting a breastfeeding vs. supplementation story written in an excellent post by Public Health Doula about her first week doing night-time Lactation Consultant work in a hospital. She calls it Why Do Babies Get Supplemented in the Hospital? and it is a great story about what a huge difference breastfeeding support can make and discusses the harm to a woman of even one formula supplementation. Enjoy!

My big victory was helping keep a hypoglycemic baby from being unnecessarily supplemented. The cut-off for hypoglycemia in the newborns here is 45. The nurse caught me in the nursery and said she had tested twice, baby was just below the cut-off and heading in the "wrong direction". To the nurse, formula seemed like a medical necessity at this point. She asked if maybe I could do it at the breast. When I came into the room, though, mom was crying - she didn't want to supplement. I offered to handle the situation from there and the nurse said that was fine - she left us to it. The mom told me the baby had been hungry and about to feed, right before the nurse had come in and taken him for the blood sugar testing. I said "Well, if he's hungry, he can nurse and if he nurses well, he won't need any formula."

So, we put the baby to breast - and this baby was, indeed, very hungry and nursing fairly well. Still, I was anxious - I did not want to screw this up, I was going to get all the colostrum into that baby that I could. The nurse had brought a couple of dental syringes for the formula. I took one and popped the stopper out, and asked mom if we could hand express into it from the other side and supplement the baby with expressed colostrum. Mom said OK very readily and wow, she had plenty! I was boggled to think this baby could have ended up with formula with so much colostrum available. The mom's sister was spending the night to help her out and happily assisted with hand expression (with mom's agreement, of course) - it was so nice to see such good family support! Who says other family members can't participate in breastfeeding?

Between nursing and supplementing, by the end of the nursing session I was having to take him off and wake him up repeatedly, and he would fall asleep as soon as he got back to the breast. This kid was full. (But I was not going to let him go to sleep without getting every last drop he could!) Finally, I put him skin-to-skin with mom (also good for blood sugar!) and called the nurse to tell her "went great, no formula needed!" And you know what? The nurse was totally fine with that. She gave the baby a full hour before rechecking his sugars and - yay! - baby was back above the cut-off - "heading in the right direction". The nurse was actually very gracious and helpful about all of this, and I realized after talking with one of the other LCs that it's not a "breastfeeding is bad" mentality at all on the nurses' part - this nurse just wanted to fix the blood sugar, and the formula could be the fix, or my help with breastfeeding could be the fix. Of course, since I'm not always there, it would be nice if this experience helps her have more confidence in the future with putting baby to breast as the first line of treatment. But one step at a time!

After all this drama about avoiding what probably would have been just several milliliters of formula, you may be wondering, what's wrong with just a little supplementation? Just to get the baby's blood sugar up - then they could go on breastfeeding, no problem. And I think it's a fair question. It doesn't seem like a single bottle would do that much harm. And yet we know that babies who are supplemented - even a single bottle - in the early days tend to have shorter durations of both exclusive and any breastfeeding. And is that so surprising? After all, we say to mom "You need to supplement with formula because your baby's blood sugar is low", what is the message we are sending? "Your milk has not been feeding your baby adequately, and it will not feed your baby adequately; we cannot trust that it is there in sufficient amounts and/or that your baby can get enough of it." Any wonder that these moms go on to mistrust their ability to nurse their babies? Additionally, even just a little formula affects baby's gut flora for weeks, changing the balance of beneficial flora that exclusive breastfeeding establishes (for more information on all of this, see this article by Marsha Walker, particularly the section "Some Cautionary Words About Supplementing with Formula").

Does all this mean we should not give formula when medically necessary? Of course not! But as you can see, medical necessity in this situation was somewhat blurry. With no breastfeeding support, it's possible that this baby would have needed to be supplemented with formula. But in the end, it turned out not to be necessary at all. Babies get those bottles of formula not necessarily through malice, but because of staffing issues, longstanding habit, and lack of education and lack of trust in breastfeeding. They get formula without the understanding of the risks of "just a little bit".

What can you do to avoid unnecessary supplementation in the hospital? A few things:

1) Prepare yourself for breastfeeding - read, take a class, attend La Leche League meetings - boost both your knowledge and your confidence.

2) Choose a certified baby-friendly birthplace - this won't eliminate the possibility of unnecessary supplements, but it will greatly decrease them!

3) Make sure breastfeeding is going well - let the staff know you are committed to breastfeeding, ask for a lactation consult, and solicit outside help from La Leche League or a lactation professional if you need to. Yes, those people can come visit you in the hospital!

4) Surround yourself with family and friend support. Maybe the sister-in-law who keeps asking whether the baby is "too hungry" is not the person to spend the night with you!

5) Be ready to advocate for yourself if needed, and have all that knowledge, preparation, and support ready. I saw another mom a few months ago who confronted the same night-time pressure to supplement for hypoglycemia. She insisted that she get a chance to breastfeed first and, lo and behold, that baby's sugar came up too. Self-advocacy is not always easy (and unfortunately not always successful), but it is very important!

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