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Feeding a Preemie Means Swallowing Your Pride

“When you go down to the NICU, tell them you have colostrum!” she said with satisfaction. When I did, the NICU nurse squirted the colostrum on a Q-tip and dabbed it on my daughter’s lips, around the tubes and the tape. I thought I saw — I wanted to see — something like recognition on her tiny face.

So, I pumped. We were both hooked up to machines, the go-betweens that picked up the slack for what I thought of as my body’s helplessness. For the first six weeks the milk went into a feeding tube that snaked down her throat and into her stomach. After that, slowly, slowly, she learned how to drink from a bottle, the first of which was administered by an occupational therapist who showed my husband and me how to feed her.

Hold her sitting upright on your lap, the therapist said, one hand splayed on the back of her neck. Moisten her lips with a drop of milk from the bottle nipple and wait for the reflexive reaction, like a tiny fish, as her mouth clamps. Tip the bottle up to dispense the milk and watch her mouth closely: Let her compress the nipple three times — a “suck burst.” Tip the bottle down to stop the flow of milk.

About a month after she came home from the hospital, she started refusing her bottle. We tried everything, as she screamed in hunger and frustration, until finally we realized that she would drink only when we lay her down by herself on the couch, on her left side. We fed her while perched nearby, bottle at the end of one outstretched arm.

Obviously, none of this was how I had imagined nourishing my child. Suddenly, so many mothering clichés made sense to me. I wanted to feed her; I wanted my sense of control and competence back. I thought of all the grandmas insisting, “Eat! Have some more!” down through the ages, and it bubbled up in the back of my throat. “Eat!” I wanted to shout at her. “Just let me feed you!”

When she was 2, she went to a small, sweet day care. The women there were from the Ivory Coast; they spoke French and served the children homemade lunch, family style. They made chicken pastry patties and warmly spiced beef stew. At home, Mira would reliably eat only plain pasta, yogurt and fruit, but at day care, she ate all the beautiful dishes the ladies cooked. I picked her up every day after lunch and brought her home for a nap. Almost invariably, I’d snuggle her in a rocking chair and she’d start to cough; then she’d vomit up all the lovely food from her day care and fall asleep.

This wasn’t normal, but it took us longer than you’d think to figure that out — we didn’t know from normal, anymore. It turned out that she has asthma and needed ear tubes for chronic ear infections. Once we got all that sorted out with surgery and medications, the inflammation subsided, and she vomited less frequently. Her diet is still 80 percent pasta, yogurt and fruit, though the day she added chicken to that list felt like a miracle.

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