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Breastfeeding in the NICU

Breastfeeding helps NICU babies thrive.Breastfeeding Challenges

When I had my first child, I had no idea that breastfeeding would take work. Like most babies born at or after their due date, my newborn daughter was equipped with the instincts and energy necessary to nurse. But first I had to cue those innate responses – and I had to be taught how to do that. It took my baby and me quite a lot of practice – and support and encouragement from the hospital nurses – to figure it out.

For mothers with babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), breastfeeding can take even more work.  Premature infants don’t have the physical strength it takes to suckle until around their due date.

Given the right amount of attention and instruction, babies in the NICU can learn to successfully breastfeed.

According to Ann Kellams, MD, pediatrician and Medical Director of the Newborn Nursery, the nurses and doctors in the NICU at UVA encourage mothers and infants through a progression of stages. At least twice daily, she says, “Babies experience skin-to-skin contact with the mother. This activates the infant’s innate preference for the mother, progressing to where a baby will even try to lick a drop of expressed milk from her breast.”

The Big Deal About Breast Milk

Meanwhile, the nurses either feed the infants by tube feeding or intravenously, if the gastrointestinal system has yet to mature.

So if babies survive all right without breast milk, what’s the big deal with breastfeeding?

The benefits of breastfeeding cannot be overstated. According to Dr. Kellams, breast milk:

  • Increases a child’s immunity against infection
  • Protects against certain childhood conditions from allergies to infections
  • Provides essential nutrients
  • Reduces the risk of SIDS, diabetes, obesity and more

She says, “The benefits to healthy infants are magnified for babies in the NICU. And they don’t just help babies survive in the hospital and beyond, but give them the best chances for a healthy life long into the future.”

Pump It Up

But it’s not just the babies who need help. Mothers lack the natural cues and triggers for milk production when babies are kept separate or are not strong enough to nurse. Stress and anxiety from having a baby in the NICU can add to the challenge.

“As soon as a baby is born we initiate pumping to help the mother’s body know the baby is on the outside,” says Dr. Kellams. “And the key is continuing to pump.” The board-certified lactation consultants at UVA also instruct women in how to manually express milk (using their hands), as the combination “increases the amount you’re able to get out.”

Along with this hands-on guidance, UVA strives to make breast pumps affordable and accessible by:

  • Providing low-cost rentals to mothers where there is a medical need
  • Selling pumps in the gift shop
  • Exploring offering low-cost pumps to employees through our pharmacy

The NICU also offers a “Mother’s Milk Lounge,” a dedicated pumping room, as well as a support group for new mothers.

Helping New Moms and Babies

Dr. Kellams applauds the NICU team’s efforts to improve breastfeeding education and support. “We’ve been running out of room for storing the milk that moms have been bringing for their babies, a sure indication that we’re making big progress helping moms give this gift to their babies.”

And all of this is important. “Human milk is a very specific support system for infants,” Dr. Kellams says. “Other animal milk just can’t substitute.”

Learn more about breastfeeding and parenting with a baby in the NICU.

Coming soon: UVA will be launching a new breastfeeding program. Stay tuned!

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