This is the fourth in a series of eleven breastfeeding superstars that we will feature in the coming weeks. Links to the others are at the end of this article.
Welcome Beth and Rian to our latest edition of Breastfeeding Superstars! At five months old, Rian was the youngest participant of our photo shoot, which took place in June. Even at that young age, he had overcome a pile of medical challenges, including congestive heart failure at two months and open-heart surgery to repair a complete atrioventricular canal (CAVC) defect at three months old. Despite his challenges, he and his mother worked together to build a successful breastfeeding relationship.
Beth has two older boys who she breastfed successfully. Armed with previous experience and knowledge, she was confident she would be able to breastfeed Rian as well. With support from a lactation consultant at UMass Memorial Hospital, Rian was able to latch on to the breast and start nursing right from the start. The two were discharged home from the hospital when he was four days old and they continued to have a successful breastfeeding relationship for several weeks.
However, at five weeks old, Rian’s doctors determined that he was not gaining weight at the rate he needed for his upcoming heart surgery. Beth began to exclusively pump at that point in order to give Rian fortified breast milk by bottle, a common way to provide extra calories, in the hopes that he would be big and strong enough to come through heart surgery optimally. Beth attempted to keep their nursing relationship alive by putting him to the breast after each of his bottle feeds but Rian fairly quickly went into heart failure and was unable to stay awake even though his bottle feeding. Nursing became a rarity, much to Beth’s disappointment. She was committed to pumping and feeding Rian fortified breast milk with the hope that they could continue a normal nursing relationship after Rian’s heart surgery.
At three months old, Rian had heart surgery to repair his CAVC defect repair. An AV canal defect is a large hole in center of the heart, affecting all four chambers and making it impossible for the heart to pump efficiently. When the heart functions normally, it pumps oxygen-rich blood from the lungs to the rest of the body and oxygen-poor blood from the body to the lungs in order to “refuel”. However, a CAVC defect allows the oxygen-poor and oxygen-rich blood to mix so the body never becomes fully oxygenated. It also allows a larger volume of blood into the right side of the heart, placing pressure on both the heart and the lungs. Untreated, this disease can lead to both heart failure and lung failure. In general this heart repair needs to happen within the first six months of the baby’s life in order to prevent permanent damage and to save the baby’s life. Ideally, the baby will grow well and the heart will be a good size for surgery. However, this is difficult due to the combination of heart failure making the baby quite sleepy with poor endurance and the heart and lungs taking up excessive amounts of energy and calories attempting to keep up with increased blood supply.
As you may begin to understand, it was critical to Beth to help Rian gain as much weight as possible as quickly as possible before his heart surgery. However, he was struggling to breathe and even drinking a few ounces of milk was a challenged. Beth recalls felling extreme anxiety and stress during this time. Rian’s feeding and breathing issues were getting worse every day and she was concerned that he would require surgery before he was physically strong enough. A few of days before his scheduled surgery, Rian completely refused his bottles and, out of desperation, Beth attempted to nurse him. It worked and Rian picked up where he had left off like he had never stopped nursing. Beth’s relief was palpable. She had been craving the closeness and bond of nursing with her sweet boy before handing him over for open-heart surgery, and she was grateful that she got her wish.
Beth continued to pump throughout Rian’s recovery so that he would have her milk to drink as soon as he was well enough. He did so well with pumped milk that doctors gave Beth the all-clear to begin nursing him. Much to Beth’s relief, he did an amazing job. Now, three months later, Beth and Rian are still nursing and have never looked back. “Every time I nurse Rian I get to look into his eyes and he’ll look back, sometimes giving me a big smile. I love the way he wraps his little fingers around my thumb and holds on, creating memories for me that will last a lifetime."