Why Breast Milk is Important for Your NICU Baby

August 22, 2019

by Marguerite Kelly, IBCLC, RLC, in collaboration with Texas WIC

breast milk NICU baby

Pediatricians and lactation consultants agree human milk is the best nutrition for babies. For the NICU baby, it can be a life-saving medicine. The anti-inflammatory properties of breast milk play a big role in preventing many diseases and conditions. Human milk decreases the risk of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), sepsis, meningitis, viral infections, urinary tract infections and respiratory infections. Infants born too small or too soon are at increased risk for these illnesses. Breast milk also protects the gut, enhances brain development and is associated with a shorter hospital stay.

The more breast milk a premature infant receives, the more significant the decrease in NEC and sepsis. Because of this, the NICU staff will ask you to start expressing your milk as soon as you can.

Even though babies who are born too soon can’t suckle yet, they can get the benefits of colostrum by absorbing it through their gum tissue. This is why your baby’s nurse may dip a sterile swab in a little colostrum and coat the inside of baby’s mouth. It helps baby to get the digestive system working as well.

Pumping for your baby in the NICU

Any time a baby goes to the NICU it is important to pump regularly, every three hours, until your baby returns to your room or home. Getting off to a great start and maintaining your milk supply will be very helpful when it is time to begin feeding your baby directly from the breast.  It helps to get started pumping and hand expressing as soon as possible after delivery. In the beginning you may only get drops, but don’t give up! Remember, every ounce counts!

It is helpful to have someone with you when you learn how to pump. In the beginning they can also assist with milk collection until you feel comfortable. Building a great support system that includes your partner, family and friends will help you throughout your baby’s entire hospital stay.

Maintaining a good milk supply while waiting for your baby to mature can be a challenge. Here are some tips:

  • Pumping at the baby’s bedside is helpful. If the NICU doesn’t have enough room, you may need to go to a private space elsewhere.
  • Think of pumping as feeding your baby. It can be easy once you leave the NICU to get distracted and busy with other things and forget to pump every three hours. Try to make it part of your daily routine.

Two good handouts for you to download are, “Mother’s Milk for Preterm Babies” and “Taking care of You”.

Taking care of yourself

The early birth of your baby probably came as quite a shock. There are so many worries about the baby. If you have other children at home, this can make it hard for you to spend a lot of time at the hospital. You will probably feel stretched thin with all the demands.

Rest when you can. You need rest to make milk. When you visit the baby, sleep next to baby’s isolette. At night set your alarm for every three hours so you aren’t worried about waking up to pump. After the first few weeks when your milk supply is established, you can set your alarm for one five-hour sleep period. Be sure to pump every three hours the rest of the time.

If you are totally exhausted, have a good meal before bed and sleep until your breasts wake you up. This may allow you to catch up on much needed sleep. It’s okay to do this occasionally but doing it all the time will affect your supply.

Eat small meals and drink water when you are thirsty. Eat healthy and try to include lots of vegetables and fruits. Keeping a piece of fruit, raw veggies, nut butters and crackers in a lunch bag will help you make sure to eat enough while you are visiting baby at the hospital.

Where to find help with pumping and breastfeeding

In partnership with Department of State Health Services, WIC offers free expert breastfeeding support to ANY mom at five lactation support centers in Texas.  WIC also offers a 24/7 hotline available to all breastfeeding moms at 855-550-MOMS (6667).

AustinMom’s Place 800-514-6667
DallasLactation Care Center Dallas 855-550-6667
HoustonThe Lactation Foundation 713-839-0527
Rio Grande Valley Lactation Care Center RGV 956-292-7711
San AntonioSan Antonio Lactation Support Center 210-207-7138