How to Navigate Breastfeeding Premature Babies and NICU Babies
Giving birth is an emotional rush of hormones and feelings of nervousness and protectiveness. Going into labor prematurely or giving birth and having your baby rushed away to the NICU can understandably heighten those emotions. You might feel more afraid or overwhelmed by the unknown. There is a rush of feelings and your feelings are valid. You might feel lost or out of place in the sea of doctors and nurses caring for your baby.
Do not doubt yourself, Mama! You gave the gift of life and you can continue to nourish your baby by providing a safe place in your arms and nourishment from your breast milk. Breast milk is something special you can provide for your baby!
Breast Milk is the best food for your baby. Breast Milk has antibodies that help keep your baby from getting sick. Breast Milk also contains nutrients that help your baby grow and develop. According to La Leche League, “The milk produced by the mother of a pre-term infant is higher in protein and other nutrients than the milk produced by the mother of a term infant. Human milk also contains lipase, an enzyme that allows the baby to digest fat more efficiently. Your breastfed premie is less likely to develop infections that are common to babies fed breast milk substitutes. He will be protected by the immunities in your milk while his own immature immune system is developing.” If your milk is not an option, donor breastmilk and formula are other options to keep your baby fed.
How your baby eats depends on their medical status and if they are able to suck/swallow. Let your doctors know that you prefer to try breastfeeding when your baby is ready. Some hospitals have certified lactation consultants in the hospital who can help. Options for feeding your baby while in the NICU are to nurse from your breast, use breast milk or formula from a bottle or a feeding tube, or through an IV.
If your baby is unable to latch, pumping breastmilk is always a great option. You should try to pump as soon as possible after birth, and about every 3 hours after to ensure a good milk supply. Check with your hospital as they should have spare pumps if you do not have your own personal one.
Whether you feed directly from your breast or by pumping, you and your baby are getting amazing benefits. Your hormones change as you release milk and the bond you create only grows and connects your relationship. Some NICU stays are long and stressful, so keep in mind you are strong and you have a loving baby, and your relationship together will help you both get through the tough road ahead.
Tips for the NICU:
Assign your partner the task of washing all pumping parts and equipment. This way you can focus on pumping, resting and recovering, and your baby.
Do Skin-to-skin care as much as possible. Skin-to-skin care promotes bonding, something we have established that will help you as you breastfeed and as you journey through together. Skin-to-skin helps you become more comfortable holding your tiny, wiggly newborn. Skin-to-skin helps stimulate your hormones that help increase your milk supply which can help while breastfeeding as well as pumping. Skin-to-skin is also reported on La Leche League to help reduce maternal stress and postpartum depression. There are many, many benefits to skin-to-skin care for your baby as well. Skin-to-skin helps regulate baby’s breathing to yours, it can regulate their heart rate, sugar level, and oxygen levels and boost their immune system.
Express your colostrum. If you are not able to feed your baby directly from your breast, the colostrum (first milk produced after giving birth) can be given by spoon or cup or a feeding tube if necessary. Colostrum is incredibly beneficial for your newborn.
Remove milk frequently. Newborns typically need to be fed every three hours, but preemies are not fed on demand but often told to be fed every two hours. Your body works in supply and demand fashion. Short and frequent feeds are most helpful when establishing your milk production. The short but frequent (every two hours) milk removal will mimic a newborn feeding pattern. If your baby is not able to nurse directly from the breast, try hand expressions first. You can also pump and try hand expression after or while pumping, which can also increase milk removal which increases your milk production.
Reach out for support. Check with your hospital for a lactation consultant or set up an appointment with our Milky Mama lactation consultants here! Ask for recommended positions for your pre-term baby.
Remember, you’ve got this mama! Breastfeeding is an amazing process. There are a variety of benefits for both baby and mom - physically and emotionally. And the best part is, these benefits occur for the duration of your breastfeeding journey. Our bodies are amazing and produce this perfect substance to feed and nourish our babies. We would love to hear about your breastfeeding journey. Come join us in the Official Milky Mama Lactation Support Facebook Group to let us know what you thought!