Motherly Collective

Pregnancy is one of the most beautiful surprises that you can experience in life, and my pregnancy was no different. Seeing a positive pregnancy test result was a huge surprise for our family. I was so in shock that I took three more tests to confirm that I was indeed expecting.

Once I shared the happy news with my husband, we sat down and talked about the care that I would need. Since I’m a registered nurse by trade, I knew this was an essential part of our family planning conversation. This is not a conversation every family has to have, but due to the history of Black mothers and childbirth and the increased mortality rate of Black mothers during childbirth, we had to take every precaution. While developing my birth plan, I got very detailed about my wishes and specifications. 

Related: What Black mothers-to-be need to know before giving birth

I explained to my husband how important it was that I have a voice during this time. Too many Black mothers have issues with not being heard or having the validity of their symptoms questioned due to their race. Once I educated my husband, he was hands-on during the entire pregnancy. 

I chose a Black female OB/GYN and an all-female practice. I made sure that every doctor in the practice knew my birth plan and wishes. I also hired a Black female doula to help advocate for me, my baby and my husband during difficult times. 

I read books and looked up community resources for Black mothers so that I could build a village around me that shared similar goals and mindsets. After all, every mom just wants to come home healthy, with a healthy baby as well. I never knew that simple wish would become such a journey for my family.

Related: Giving birth shouldn’t be a death sentence, but for Black moms, this is the reality

I had a healthy and uneventful pregnancy until around 25 weeks, which is when I started feeling off. About a week later, I developed headaches and high blood pressure. I was admitted into the hospital with a condition called preeclampsia. After eight days of monitoring, I gave birth to my daughter, Aria Saori, at 27 weeks and 1 day. Aria was considered a micropreemie at only 1 pound, 6 ounces. 

No matter how much I had planned, nothing could have prepared me for all the quick decisions that led to her early arrival. Even though she arrived much sooner than we expected, she was a fighter from the start. She came out crying with her eyes open! That motivated me to jump into action to give my baby girl everything I could instead of focusing on the odds stacked against her.

In my birth plan developed with my doula, I had specified that I wanted to breastfeed, though I knew that a Black mom breastfeeding could be faced with many odds. Right after birth, I was given a breast pump. While in the NICU, Aria was fed through a tube in her mouth. 

It was essential to me that she was fed only breast milk and no cow milk products or formula. This is because while preparing for her birth, I had discussed the benefits of breast milk and breastfeeding for mothers and babies with my doula and completed research as a nurse-now-turned-mother, so I had a strong conviction to ensure my baby received breast milk.

Related: 7 support groups for Black breastfeeding moms

If any mother has predetermined choices made in their birth plan, I encourage them to voice their concerns even when things seem out of their control. My strong desire for breast milk for my baby led to her being introduced to Prolacta products. Prolacta is a company that creates 100% donor breast milk-based fortifiers to help preemie babies develop, grow stronger and get healthier in order to leave the NICU sooner. The many benefits that I see in my daughter today are due to her nutrition in these early stages, which is what led to me working with Prolacta to encourage other parents to advocate for themselves and know their options in difficult times.

In order to gain weight and get the extra calories she missed in the third trimester, Aria’s NICU team gave her a special nutritional fortifier from Prolacta. The fortifier was added to my expressed breast milk. It can also be added to donor breast milk for moms who can’t produce right away or who can’t produce enough.

Though plenty of women can’t or simply don’t want to, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of supporting mothers who do decide to breastfeed.

Preemies require up to 40% more calories and protein than full-term babies, and may struggle to get the increased nutrients they need from breast milk alone, so fortifiers provide additional calories and protein for proper growth and development. Some studies show that when premature babies are fed cow milk-based fortifiers, infants may be at higher risk for severe complications, including necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), an intestinal disease that’s a leading cause of death for preemies. I had seen these cases in my research and was determined to keep it from happening to my daughter. 

I pumped around the clock. I sought the help of my doula and a Black female lactation consultant to help me manage my milk supply. It was a full-time job to keep up with bringing fresh milk to the NICU for my daughter. Despite it being stressful, I continued to bring her breast milk daily even after I returned to work. Every day, I went straight from my job to the NICU. I was determined to give her all the benefits of breast milk. I believe the fact that she only had breast milk helped her grow and get healthy.

I researched and joined NICU mom/parent Facebook groups and talked to anyone I could who had experienced preterm birth. At first, I felt like the NICU was this daunting and depressing place. However, I grew to look at it with light—seeing the happiness from parents visiting their children and noticing their warmth from holding their tiny babies close for hours on end. I noticed the diligence of the NICU teams who worked tirelessly around the clock to make sure these fragile babies received the best care.

Related: If we want to end racial disparities for moms and babies, we need to invest in our children—today

After 110 days in the NICU, Aria came home without any tubes and on breast milk only. She is now a thriving 1 year old—full of life, personality and curiosity that just might match my own. She’s reaching all her developmental marks and is steadily gaining weight. I couldn’t be prouder.

I share our story and help other moms like myself with lactation now because I saw so much during my own experience. Many moms weren’t as educated and got bowled over or overwhelmed while in the NICU. My husband and I made it a point to be active in Aria’s care, and now that I reflect on the experience, I know that helped save her life.

Though plenty of women can’t or simply don’t want to, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of supporting mothers who do decide to breastfeed. Remember, most insurance companies do offer lactation services. If you’re a NICU parent, you could qualify for services, a pump and free follow-up consultations. It’s so important for parents of preemies to advocate for their babies. Know that you have support in the process. Do all the research you can. Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions about your baby’s care—especially about what they are being fed. It could make all the difference in your own birth stories.

A version of this story was originally published on Nov. 29, 2022. It has been updated.

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