I told myself when I was pregnant with my first child that I would try to breast feed. I had listened to enough friends who wanted to and it didn’t work out for one reason or another. I told myself if I was disappointed that I couldn’t breast feed, I wouldn’t be too hard on myself. I never imagined that I would decide to solely pump breast milk.
My firstborn was born six weeks early. He went immediately to the NICU. I was so ill that I couldn’t physically see him until 27 hours after his birth. Before I met him for the first time, a NICU nurse came to my room with a bunch of pumping supplies and asked me if I was planning to breast feed. I told her I would try. She nodded in a way that told me I gave the right answer. “Okay,” I thought, “pressure’s on.”
I proceeded to religiously pump breast milk as I looked at pictures and videos of my baby. It took the typical few days for my milk to come in but once it did, it came and came. Even though I was not able to put him to breast until a week after his birth, I was one of the fortunate ones. My body cooperated despite the fact that I couldn’t be near my baby 24/7.
My second child was born with special needs. So I followed the same protocol as my first and started pumping like crazy thinking that eventually he would latch. He did latch but he could not manage the complex process of suck, swallow, breathe required for babies to either nurse or take a bottle. For him, it was impossible to eat without aspirating.
After two weeks of trying to nurse him it was becoming clear to me that this would be much more challenging and I needed to make a decision as to whether or not I would pump breast milk for a prolonged period of time. I decided that I would. But I decided to take it one day at a time. I never made myself commit to doing it for a certain period of time. For me it was about constantly evaluating and re-evaluating whether or not it was good for my baby and me.
I’m not going to lie. It’s hard. But here are some tips to help you make it through a prolonged period if you decide to pump breast milk for your NICU baby.
Pump a lot. At birth, lactation consultants will typically tell you to pump breast milk eight times per 24-hour period, which works out to pumping about every three hours. I tried to do this initially. However, I did let myself sleep at night if my body didn’t wake me up telling me to pump. I just made sure I got in my eight sessions in during each day. Over time, I decreased the number of times I pumped in a day beginning by cutting out night sessions. You’ll get to know how much milk your body makes and can adjust your schedule down accordingly.
Pump consistently. Consistency is key. Try to pump breast milk at the exact same time every day whether your schedule is eight times a day or only three. It’s almost like your body expects to produce milk when you get on a schedule. And if you feel your supply start to go down, add a couple of pumping sessions back in and it may increase again.
Drink tons of water. Drink more water than you think you need. At even a hint of thirst, take another sip. It’s incredible how much water your body needs to make milk.
Eat more than normal calories. Your body will naturally help you with this one because you’ll be more hungry than usual. Remember when you feel those hunger pains, eat healthy foods. It’s good for you and good for your baby.
“Power pump.” The NICU lactation consultants and nurses taught me about the “power pump” or “hour of power.” It really worked for me. What it means is that you pump breast milk for five minutes, stop for five minutes, pump for five, stop for five, etc. Do it for a full hour and your supply may go back up the next day.
Supplements and medications. I have heard that herbs such as fenugreek, milk thistle, blessed thistle, and fennel will help stimulate milk production. I never tried them. I tried a prescription drug called Reglan. It made my supply go up like crazy. However, some women have reported side effects like a depressive mood, something you will want to avoid in light of all the other stresses you are experiencing in the NICU. After taking Reglan consistently for a few days, I started to feel a little blue so I stopped. I only took it when I felt I needed a little boost to my supply.
Set up a pumping station. It’s hard to keep at it when it feels like a chore. But I grew to really like pumping for the simple fact that I couldn’t be doing anything for anyone else. I made sure my kids were safe and entertained for twenty minutes. I set up a little pumping station with my laptop, a couple of books, and my journal. It was my time to do something for me. I enjoyed it. My pumping station became a place of respite for me and it’s one of the big reasons why I pumped as long as I did.
Whether you pump breast milk for eight days or eight months, celebrate. Go have a party with some girlfriends and celebrate with a glass of wine. You’re done!