Breastfeeding in the NICU is a daunting task, but it can also be an amazing achievement. When we entered the NICU at 27 weeks and 6 days, I knew there was very little I could do to care for our newborn. Yet, there was one thing I knew could do more than any doctor or nurse, and that was provide breast milk. The body is amazing in how it adjusts to different circumstances. When a preterm infant is born the mother’s milk adjusts to the baby’s needs – providing extra vitamins, calories and protection.
Immediately after birth I began pumping. It was something that in my head I thought I would do for a few weeks until she was big enough to nurse, yet our pumping journey drug on – every three hours – for four months, and then for many more months as I attempted to manage an infant who nursed like a newborn and a supply who thought it was nursing a baby three months older. In those months I learned a lot about myself through our journey. I hope you find a few of these lessons helpful in your journey of breastfeeding your preemie.
- Don’t quit on your hardest day: This was my motto throughout the two years we nursed. There were some hard days – super hard days. Days when I dumped freshly pumped milk on myself at 3 a.m. because I was exhausted from being at NICU, working and pumping around the clock. Days when our daughter nursed and nursed – and lost weight. Days when I didn’t have time to pump – yet found the time. In the end don’t quit on those days. Don’t quit when you’re exhausted or overwhelmed or over the whole situation. Push through – there are better days ahead, days when you can think through it and make a more rational decision!
- The pump is your friend: I didn’t leave home without my pump while our daughter was in the NICU. We purchased a car adapter so that I was able to literally pump anywhere. Gathering the needed supplies that makes pumping as easy as possible is a must! We found always having a small cooler with ice packs, extra bags and the car adapter was a huge help. Also an app to track milk production gave me confidence in my supply.
- It’s all breastfeeding: It doesn’t matter whether your baby transitions to breast or drinks milk from a bottle until they’re three. You have done the absolute best you can with the circumstances you are given. You aren’t a failure because your baby never nursed – in fact, you’re a rockstar for continuing to pump!
- Determination: To breastfeed a preemie you’ll need as much determination as they do to grow and fight each day. The process of teaching a premature infant to nurse can be incredibly difficult. At one point we spent an hour nursing, pumping and then bottle feeding and then two hours later would do it again. It was overwhelming, but worth it. Determination will take you places you never imagined you were strong enough to accomplish!
From one preemie mom to another – good luck! Don’t give up. Celebrate the small victories – the grams gained, waking for a feeding, pumping a little more milk today than yesterday and trust me, one day you will look back and admire all the work you put into it! Whether it was a day a month a year or longer, it was worth it!