The Roller Coaster of Breastfeeding in the NICU

August 17, 2020
Photo by: Jessie Threlkeld

When my daughter was born eight weeks early, it was such a shock and surprise for my husband and me. I had always envisioned having a calm, peaceful birth and directly being able to breastfeed our daughter. That wasn’t our story.

Bree was whisked away by a NICU team while I had to stay and recover. My heart was racing as I imagined her being poked and prodded, desperate to see my little girl. The nurse looked over at me and said,” If you want to breastfeed, you’ll have to pump right away, should I go get you a pump?”

I looked puzzled. Pump, I thought. I wasn’t going to get to hold her and try first? “She’s not strong enough,” they responded. I put the two pumps on and the whooshing sound began. It was so uncomfortable and not at all how I imagined my breastfeeding journey would begin.

Twenty minutes later, the nurse came back to tell me I could stop.  I had a measly two drops in there. She smiled and said, “That’s great! We’ll try more in a few hours.” Within a week my milk came in. Oh man, did it come in — in overdrive! The doctors and nurses commented on how my supply was so amazing and we began freezing my milk. I felt like I could finally calm down and not worry about feeding my baby. I looked into donor milk and became a milk donor for other NICU babies.

After two months of this, it was time to start the next phase of the breastfeeding journey. The first time Bree latched there were doctors and nurses surrounding the two of us, taking notes and making comments. My hope was that we would get Bree from tube feeding to breastfeeding. The doctors and nurses were very uncomfortable with this since it would be a challenge to measure how much Bree was getting at each feeding, but they obliged me anyway. The first feeding went beautifully and I thought for sure that it would be smooth sailing.

But the feedings soon after were very difficult. Bree had trouble latching. Our incredible lactation specialist helped every day. With her help and with the help of a nipple shield, we were able to get a good, strong latch.

One month of breastfeeding successfully and we were sent home! But two days after being home, our little girl stopped breathing. I performed CPR while dialing 911, and we were airlifted back to the NICU, where everything changed. I tried breastfeeding in the NICU, but my supply slowly dropped and eventually went away completely. I power pumped and prayed all night long. Bree couldn’t handle formula; her stomach would get really constipated, which would often result in her needing oxygen support from trying to push so much. This went on for days as I power pumped and kept watching her little body turn purple again and need more oxygen. Our lactation consultant was such an amazing woman as I cried that my milk was gone and that we had to find a way to bring it back. Thankfully there are many ways for women to get milk supply up, back and even re-lactate!

This is what I want to encourage you with. Since that time I have had my supply drop and even disappear twice. Both times I have managed to get it back. It requires work, commitment, and patience, but if your heart is set on breastfeeding your baby, here are some tips that can help you.

Find support

For me, our doctors weren’t very supportive of my decision to exclusively breastfeed our daughter, but my husband and lactation consultant were. Especially for moms that want to breastfeed instead of pump, this tip is crucial. It takes time to latch and usually a professional to help. Seek out a lactation consultant if this is something that you wish to do.


Eat and drink regularly

This was my problem in the NICU. I was so stressed and didn’t want to leave Bree to grab a bite. Trust me it will be good for you and your little one if you get a break every now and then for a meal or a healthy snack.

Drink every time you nurse

I would fill up my water bottle and drink 12 ounces every time I nursed. This helps a lot.


Stress is the number one reason why a woman’s milk supply drops or disappears. The NICU is a very stressful environment. I made a goal to walk around outside for 10 minutes every day and breathe. I journaled and found funny shows to watch on Hulu. Take a few minutes every day for YOU!


Find humor 

Humor is a great way to release stress. Find a nurse that you connect with, a friend, or a spouse, and find something to laugh at.


If all else fails, supplement your diet with lactation teas. Fennel was a great booster for me. And always talk to your lactation specialist to see what other supplements may help.

And as always pump, pump, pump!

It will be worth it in the end! I hated my breast pump when I was round-the-clock pumping, but am so thankful for it now. Make it fun by listening to calming music, watching a funny show, or reading a good book. The hardest time to pump is in the middle of the night, but if it is something that you can commit to, it will make a huge difference in keeping your supply going. Every three hours is a great way to keep track of when you pumped last.

The breastfeeding journey is a personal one that for some is smooth sailing, for others takes an abrupt halt, and for many of us has twists and turns with many bumps along the way, but in the end is one of the greatest joys.

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