There are many reasons as to why or how long a baby needs to be in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit or “NICU”. Some babies only need to be monitored for a short period whereas other babies need extended stays. Either way, you can still provide your baby with the best nourishment possible, breastmilk. This is a contribution to the infant that only the mother can provide. If mom’s own milk isn’t available, donor milk is the next best option. There are many resources available to obtain donor breast milk. Ask your NICU staff or call The Care Connection so we may better direct you.
Each baby’s scenario is unique to them but if your baby was born preterm, or before 37 weeks gestation, they may have additional obstacles related to breastfeeding. Babies need to be able to coordinate sucking, swallowing, and breathing to breastfeed. This typically happens around 32 to 35 weeks gestation. A preterm infant will not have as forceful of a suck. Therefore, mom may need additional stimulation to help increase milk volume. Frequent skin to skin care as permitted by the neonatologist is very important. Some infants as early as 28 weeks gestation may be able to lick expressed milk from mom’s nipple. Be sure to discuss when your baby can have oral feeds with your neonatologist.
Preterm breast milk is designed specifically to protect your premature infant for life outside of your womb. It has a higher concentration of calories, lipids, high nitrogen protein, sodium, chloride, potassium, iron, and magnesium compared to full-term breastmilk.
So, what can you do to encourage a full milk supply? Depending on your own health, it is ideal to start stimulating the breasts as frequently as your infant would, which is about 8-12 times every 24 hours. Using a hospital grade pump is highly recommended as this is one of the best ways to insure adequate stimulation in the early stages. Your NICU should be able to provide this pump for you but you may need to bring your own tubing/plastics with you at each visit. You will want to pump both breasts simultaneously for 15 minutes. Once milk has stopped flowing, try hand expressing to further empty the breast. This technique is very effective in helping to increase milk production. Warm, moist heat or a warm rice sock applied to the breasts prior to pumping can also help increase output.
Another key factor is to make sure your flanges fit well. An improper fit can negatively affect your milk supply and cause nipple trauma. Request to have your flange fit checked by a lactation consultant. Pain, pinching, or discomfort while pumping is not normal. Your nipple should move freely within the tunnel of the flange. If you have questions you can also get measured for the proper flange fit at The Care Connection.
Along with any other breastfeeding mother it is important to avoid things that are known to decrease your milk production. These things can include smoking, caffeine, birth control pills and injections, decongestants or antihistamines, and extreme weight loss diets. Excessive amounts of oregano, parsley, peppermint, and sage can also impact supply. Discuss any supplements or medications with your neonatologist prior to taking.
It is important for any infant, especially an infant in the NICU to avoid any possible bacterial contamination to breastmilk. This can happen with collection and storage. Prior to pumping wash your hands thoroughly including under your fingernails. Wipe your nipple area with water only (no soap). Plastic bags are not recommended for milk storage for preterm infants. Ask your NICU staff about the use of Snappies for milk storage. These are hard, plastic, leak proof storage bottles that are free of BPA. When milk collection is finished, wash all pump parts thoroughly with hot soapy water and rinse. Sterilize pump parts/collection bottles at least once a day. Be sure to label all expressed milk with labels printed from your NICU. If they do not provide you with labels make your own that includes your child’s name, date of birth, medical record number, and date and time of pumping. Check with your NICU staff about their current recommended storage guidelines.
Once your baby can start feeds at the breast, ask for a lactation consultant in the NICU to assist you in latching your baby to your breast.
Finally, having a baby in the NICU can be a challenging time for anyone involved so make sure to take care of yourself. Join support groups or speak to other NICU families. A follow up appointment with a lactation consultant after hospital discharge can also be very beneficial. If you have any questions or concerns or would like to speak to a lactation consultant contact The Care Connection by phone 716-725-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.