The day has finally come: Your beautiful newborn is here! But it doesn’t look like in the movies; your baby has a NICU stay ahead of her. Suddenly breastfeeding became even more important to you and your little one, so you pump like crazy, day and night. You treat each drop of breastmilk as liquid gold. Begging for your milk not to go away. Does this sound like you? Since breastfeeding a preemie can be challenging, this post is all about hacks to help you pump your way through your NICU stay!
When my son was born, I felt like one of the only few things I could do for him was provide him with breastmilk. We couldn’t even hold him for the first three weeks of his life. I would sit outside his incubator and watch my milk dripping slowly into his stomach through a feeding tube. There was growing pressure to get more milk out of me.
It got so stressful that soon it seemed like there was a constant dark cloud over my mind. I felt like a failure when my supply dropped, and I pumped every two hours. My stress levels were so high that I couldn’t sleep without having terrible nightmares. I wondered what I could do to increase my supply without any contact with my son.
When it comes to breastmilk, there are things that you won’t be able to control, but other things that you will!
Even though I’m listing some tricks that helped me maintain my supply during my son’s 43-day NICU stay, these hacks may not work for everyone. You can follow all of them and end up draining sooner than later (it happens.) So before I tell you my nursing hacks, I want to share a story first.
Eva was born at 27 weeks due to her mother suffering from HELLP syndrome. She had brain bleeding, a lung infection, and a bacteria that entered her system within her first week. Her mom was in the ICU, and even from there, she pumped all she could.
Eva was my son’s NICU neighbor, and her mom and I were pumping buddies. I watched her struggle with her milk flow, she did almost everything I did, everything the lactation consultant told her to do, and everything she read online, but to no avail.
Eva’s mom’s milk flow eventually drained while she was still in the NICU. And the supply she had managed to leave to her daughter emptied after a short while. The NICU team resorted to feeding Eva with formula.
Eva suddenly thrives.
In less than two weeks after starting on the formula feeds the doctors transferred her to the Special Care Nursery Unit, where she fed and grew steadily.
She went home after 60 days in the hospital, much sooner than the doctor’s expectations!
I’m not saying there is a direct relation between Eva not drinking her mom’s milk and thriving; I just wanted to share her story to take some pressure off your shoulders. Eva is doing great, and she fed on milk formula for the first months of her life.
Yes, you read that right! The first months of her life! When Eva was safe at home, and her mom was more relaxed, her milk flow returned! She went from no supply to long-term breastfeeding!
This brings us to my first pumping hack…
Breastfeeding a Preemie Hack # 1: Try not to Stress!
Overthinking breastfeeding NICU preemies is not uncommon among new moms of premature babies.
I felt a sudden urge to breastfeed when Ollie was in the NICU; it seemed like the only thing I could do for my son who was fighting for his life two floors down inside an incubator. Stress came naturally, and to be honest; it never went away. At least not until my baby was eating solids.
I could subdue the stress to a point, and the milk flow increased almost immediately.
I had started to meditate during pregnancy and paused for the first two weeks after my son was born. When stress came at me and hit me like a bullet train, I re-started meditation almost as a reflex and saw its benefits early on. My milk supply increased from less than one ounce to 2.5 ounces overnight. I was delighted!
Breastfeeding a Preemie Hack #2: Drink Tons of Fluids
This hack is a no-brainer for new moms. But you’d be surprised how often us NICU moms can forget about drinking water or fluids. Yes, I mean it!
Inside our NICU, they wouldn’t allow us to bring any food or beverage (this is the norm for most NICUs.). We also weren’t allowed to stay overnight. My days were a crazy-frenzy routine. I arrived as early as they would let me, pumped, went to read to Oliver, pumped again, went back to read to him again, and so on until they kicked me out for the night.
Within all of this, I forgot to eat, drink water, sleep, I forgot to be me, and that was OK. It was what my son needed at the time. But I was overlooking that drinking would increase my milk flow. Once I realized this, I made drinking pauses… and saw the positive effects within a few hours!
Drink water or fluids when you’re thirsty, don’t overlook it, but don’t overdo it!
Breastfeeding a Preemie Hack # 3: Choose the Right Pump
Your hospital may lend you a pump for home. Mine didn’t. We were on a tight budget, so I bought the cheapest pump there was. Big mistake! My breasts were sore and cracked after the first couple of pumps, and I had to discard it and get a hospital-grade pump. I was still low on cash, so we went for a manual one. Choosing the right pump is crucial for successfully breastfeeding NICU preemies.
The new pump was soft to my already swollen breasts, and it extracted more milk than the cheap one!
Nature knows its ways, the more milk you express, the more milk you’ll produce. By purchasing a pump that was more effective, my body adjusted and started increasing the milk flow to keep the pace of my new pump.
Sasha, of Life’s Carousel, breaks down her tips on choosing the right pump, and even more tips for increasing milk supply! You can see her post by clicking here.
Breastfeeding a Preemie Hack #4: Rest
Aah! I needed my beauty sleep… and I didn’t even know it. When Ollie was born, I didn’t sleep much. It happens to most parents. However, it’s different waking up to nurse a crying baby than to call the NICU because you just had a horrible nightmare. The quality of my sleep was low, and I wasn’t getting the baby’s stimulus to produce more milk.
I was doing everything right. Meditating, drinking tons of fluids, eating right, and pumping every 3 hours. My flow was increasing, but it wasn’t enough to feed my baby in the NICU.
Then one night, I overslept. Everything was going well that day. My son was doing fine, my meditation had been fulfilling, and I was so tired that I didn’t hear the alarm clock (and my husband turned it off for me without waking me up!). When I woke up with my breasts sore, painful, and full of milk, I expressed 8 ounces of breastmilk in one sitting and maintained a high flow that day.
That was the thing that was missing, I never fell short on supply again, and ended up bringing home a couple of months worth of feeds and donating breastmilk!
I know the norm says you should pump every three hours, but you can skip the midnight pumps for a couple of days and see if it makes a difference. It did for me. This hack doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pump, in fact, pumping is essential to maintaining your flow…
Breastfeeding a Preemie Hack #5: Pump Regularly… but Rest!
Don’t overlook resting because of pumping. However, make sure you don’t spend more than 5 hours in a row without expressing milk.
Regularly emptying your breasts will send your body the signal that it needs to produce more and more milk. If you let your milk get stored without expressing it, your body will think that you don’t need it and stop producing it.
Breastfeeding a Preemie Hack #6: Massage under Warm Water
Whenever you are in the shower, try performing circular, soft massages back-to-front to soften milk lumps. The milk will flow easier by not having any obstacles. Do this every time you take a bath. It will not only increase the flow, but it will make breastfeeding a less painful experience and prevent serious infection risks like mastitis.
Your body will intuitively know how to do this (so trust what it’s telling you to do, even if it hurts). You can also ask your lactation consultant for help.
Breastfeeding a Preemie Hack #7: Express Manually
Expressing will not replace your pump’s work, but it’s a handy skill!
Manually Expressing maintained my flow, I used to do it after every pump to make sure that no lumps were remaining. If I couldn’t get much out of a pumping session, I would also express under warm water to stimulate the flow (and then pumped again to better results!).
Ask your lactation consultant to teach you this handy skill for your nursing journey!
That’s a Wrap
All in all, remember Eva’s story. Although I changed the names to protect her privacy, her story is a real one. Eva’s mom did a fantastic job trying to nurse her and then accepting that her daughter would need formula and move on to help her in so many ways. She did kangaroo care, got her room ready, and even celebrated a belated baby shower!
There are many ways to take care of your precious baby, and nursing is only one of them. It is true that it has many proven benefits. I’m not trying to start a debate on whether you should breastfeed your preemie or not; each mom knows what’s best for their child. But don’t fret, just remember, it will be all right!
What do you do to increase your milk flow? Tell us all about us in the comment section!