Story: Breastfeeding and the NICU

Breastfeeding and the NICU

With the successful breastfeeding experience of my first son under my belt, I felt quite prepared to welcome our second child. However, things didn’t go as I’d hoped or planned when my birthing plan changed to an induction, followed by an unexpected NICU stay due to feeding difficulties.

I knew it was important to move quickly and start pumping as my son hadn’t latched yet and the 24-hour mark was fast approaching. The first thing I did was rent a hospital breast pump on the postpartum unit. I had only pumped a handful of times with my first, so I felt overwhelmed by the process in what was already an emotionally draining situation. That first night was challenging. I was exhausted and sore from just giving birth the night before, worried about my new baby in the NICU, missing my toddler at home, and now attempting to suddenly pump. I felt discouraged as I started to pump the first night and didn’t even see a single drop. I thought “This is my second time– my milk should be here by now, something should be happening”.

I found my local La Leche League Group when my first son was a few weeks old, I stayed connected even between weaning and my next pregnancy. What I was really grateful for was already having this support system in place. Instead of trying to figure out my next steps during this stressful time, I was able to easily send a quick group message to all my Leader friends. In the middle of the night, as I sat in the dark hospital room pumping, they sent messages of support, encouragement, and helpful resources.

I remember saying to my husband I was worried that the NICU may prefer formula over breastfeeding because it may be easier for the staff. During the first few days there I overheard that almost every baby in the NICU was on a donor milk supplement. I quickly realized that they must know and believe in the benefits of babies having human milk if it was a standard to prescribe it to all these tiny patients. What I thought might be an awkward process of pumping and bringing in milk was actually a simple, streamlined process they had down to a science. At one point I was torn if we should just focus on bottles so that we could possibly get him home sooner. With the support and encouragement of my amazing husband, he reminded me that breastfeeding was a big goal of mine and that we could accomplish it. He was right! I was very fortunate that the NICU my son was in was very supportive of breastfeeding. Every nurse we had was happy to help with latching. They would encourage trying to breastfeed before giving him his tube feed. And they always excitedly received the pumped milk that I had brought in for him. They had lactation consultants, privacy screens, nursing pillows, and rental pumps available.

The nights were hard. The days were a blur of rushing to and from the hospital, distracted by weigh-ins, feeding schedules, nurses, doctors, lactation consultants, and the constant sound of beeping. The evenings were busy caring for my toddler who I missed so deeply all day long. But the nights were hard— that’s when my heart ached the most. It was just me and my pump in the quiet, empty nursery. It would have been so easy to choose to sleep on those first few nights. An alarm just doesn’t have the same motivation as a crying baby beside your bed. Nevertheless, I pumped. I pumped every couple of hours each day until he was home in my arms. Pumping was how I cared for my baby at night when I couldn’t be there to hold him. I couldn’t soothe him during his night wakes, but what I could do was fill his belly with liquid love when we were apart. The milk was our connection on those long, hard nights.

A NICU stay is hard on the whole family unit. I was fortunate enough to have support from family and friends, and looking back I am so proud of how our family handled this difficult time. It took time to heal emotionally. I felt sad and angry for a while. It felt as if the joy of his birth had been ripped away and replaced with instant stress. What I kept reminding myself was, “This is just a few difficult weeks in comparison to the lifetime of happiness and joy ahead of us.” With time and a purposeful effort toward healing, I now look back at our NICU experience mostly with a feeling of strength and gratitude. I see the immense strength I had to get through that difficult time and I am so proud of myself. I am so grateful for the amazing care that he received and the support and encouragement I was given that contributed to my breastfeeding success.

Written by Group Mom: Olivia S