Expressed breast milk as 'connection' and its influence on the construction of 'motherhood' for mothers of preterm infants: a qualitative study
Sweet, Linda Phyllis
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Background Breast milk is considered the optimal nutrition for all newborn infants. While there is high initiation of lactation among mothers of preterm infants in Australia, there is a rapid decline of continued lactation. Furthermore, there is an inverse relationship between infant gestation and duration of lactation. To better understand the breastfeeding experience of parents of very low birth weight (VLBW) preterm infants an interpretive phenomenological study was conducted. Methods This longitudinal study was conducted using an interpretive phenomenological approach. Data were collected from 17 parents through 45 individual interviews with both mothers and fathers, from birth to 12 months of age. This data was then transcribed verbatim and analysed using thematic analysis. Results The analysis identified six primary themes: the intention to breastfeed naturally; breast milk as connection; the maternal role of breast milk producer; breast milk as the object of attention; breastfeeding and parenting the hospitalised baby and the demise of breastfeeding. This paper reports on the theme of 'breast milk as connection'. Providing expressed breast milk offered one way the mothers could be physiologically and emotionally connected to their preterm infant while they were in the constant care of hospital staff. Indeed, breast milk was considered the only way the new mother could connect her body (or part there of) to her preterm baby in hospital. This sense of connection however, comes at a cost. On the one hand, the breast milk offers a feeling of connection to the baby, but, on the other, this connection comes only after disconnection of the mother and baby and – through breast expression – mother and her milk. This ability of breast milk to connect mother and baby makes the expressed breast milk highly valued, and places unexpected pressure on the mother to produce milk as integral to her sense of motherhood. Conclusion The findings of this study have implications for healthcare practice. It is evident that the association of breastfeeding success with mothering success only jeopardises some families' self-esteem and sense of parenting ability. These findings suggest it would be beneficial to find alternate ways to connect preterm infants and their parents in the preterm nursery environment, and find more positive ways to support breastfeeding.