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Providing breast milk and breastfeeding in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU)

Please consider providing breast milk, even if you had not planned to breastfeed your baby. Your baby will receive the following benefits of your breast milk:

  • Oral immune therapy – tiny drops of your breast milk/colostrum are placed inside your baby’s mouth to start building their immune system
  • Breast milk is easy to digest, reducing the risk of intestinal problems especially for premature infants
  • Breast milk provides initial protection from infectious diseases and may decrease the length of illness if your baby does get sick
  • Breastfeeding and skin-to-skin holding promotes bonding and calms baby in the intensive care environment

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: “When do I begin pumping breast milk?”

Ideally, pumping should begin within the first hours after your baby is born. Many labor and delivery hospitals have breast pumps available. However, many NICU families are coping with early postpartum recovery and pumping may be delayed during transition to a new hospital environment. When you arrive to the unit, a lactation specialist will help you learn to pump milk in the NICU.

Q: “How do I provide breast milk if my baby is in the hospital?”

The Arkansas Children’s NICU has an onsite pumping room with double electric hospital-grade breast pumps available. Lactation specialists will provide equipment and instruction on how to use the breast pumps and how often to use the pumps. The pumping room is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

(Frequent pumping is necessary if your baby is not directly breastfeeding. It is recommended to pump both breasts every 2 – 3hrs even through the night)

Q: “Why is my breast milk better than formula?”

Human breast milk is the normal food for human babies. Each individual mother’s breast milk is specifically made to match the nutritional needs of her baby. For premature babies, breast milk is especially important because it provides protection against the intestinal disease, necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), which can be fatal.

Breast milk is dynamic and changes with the needs of the baby. For example, preemie mother’s milk has more immune factors and is higher in certain vitamins and minerals than term mother’s milk.

Q: “Are there any benefits to the mother for providing breast milk?”

Yes, breastfeeding provides a special bond between mother and baby.

Mothers who breastfeed or provide breast milk have decreased risk for breast and ovarian cancer

Because mother uses her own calories to provide milk for her baby, she may find it easier to lose undesirable “baby weight” postpartum

NICU mothers are often proud to take an active part in helping their baby get well

Q: “What do NICU mothers need to know about pumping?”

Facts about providing breast milk in the NICU:

  • Pumping breast milk doesn’t normally hurt – If you have pain, ask for assistance with the pump
  • Breast milk supply comes in slowly and requires consistent pumping to maintain
  • Breast milk can be frozen and stored for months if necessary
  • Many mothers that provide breast milk by bottle go on to breastfeed successfully. Some mothers also choose to transition to formula after some time pumping
  • You can provide your breast milk even if you are taking medicine. Mother’s medications are reviewed by the NICU Medical Teams
  • Double electric breast pumps are a time-efficient option for mother’s that pump around the clock. Most insurance companies and Arkansas WIC provide double electric breast pumps
  • Lactation specialists will help you throughout your baby’s stay in the NICU

Q: “When will my premature baby be ready to breastfeed?”

Every baby is unique, but here are some signs to look for that may mean your baby is ready to breastfeed:

  • 33 weeks adjusted age and stable to be held without changes in heart rate or oxygenation
  • Awake and alert at care times and before feedings
  • Rooting or sucking on fists, feeding tube, or pacifier

Support for breastfeeding families in the NICU at Arkansas Children’s Hospital

Certified lactation specialists are available Mondays, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., and Tuesday – Sunday 9 a.m. – 9 p.m. Families can request a lactation consultation during their hospital stay or call the Lactation Office at 501-364-1576.

Lactation Specialists provide the following services (and more):

Breast pumping education with hospital-grade double electric breast pumps (all equipment provided):

  • Maintaining milk supply in the NICU environment (multi-station pumping room onsite!)
  • Breastmilk storage and handling
  • Cleaning pumping equipment

Breastfeeding/breast care education and assistance:

  • Breastfeeding latch-on and positioning
  • Specialty breastfeeding help for babies that were preemie, sick, or had surgery
  • Breast care advice for sore nipples, engorgement, plugged ducts, etc.
  • Management advice for combination feeding (ex: pumping + bottling + breastfeeding)
  • Tips for breastfeeding or providing breast milk for multiples (twins, triplets)