Moms often feel powerless when they give birth to a baby prematurely. It can be hard to have a baby being looked after in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) because early bonding newborn rituals are impacted by the hospital environment and the baby’s own delicate condition. However, even if your baby is born premature, one of the greatest gifts you can give your baby is to pump breastmilk to nourish them.

Many mothers of premature babies find that expressing breastmilk for their baby gives them a sense of peace, purpose, and empowerment – because even though your baby needs the care of the NICU and the health professionals, giving your baby breastmilk is something that only you as a mother can do. Being a breastpump-dependent mom for a premature baby can be a stressful time – but it can also be a time of great determination, strength and grace. Here are a few things to keep in mind while your premature baby is growing and getting stronger in the NICU:

Breastmilk Can Be the Gift of Life for a Preemie!

If your baby is born prematurely, she may not be able to take milk straight from your breast at the beginning. That’s why it is critical that you make every effort to feed your baby every single drop of breastmilk that they will take. By pumping your milk, you will keep the supply going so that as the baby gets stronger you’ll have more milk to feed them.

Colostrum, the breastmilk produced during the first days of the baby’s life, is full of nutrients and infection fighting properties needed for a baby to grow stronger and get the best start in life. In the first days after the birth, small volumes of colostrum may be expressed, but every drop is precious life-giving liquid.

Pumping breastmilk while in the NICU may be very stressful and challenging, so use a good quality pump like the Medela Symphony with the Preemie + Initiation technology. The NICU in hospitals will have hospital grade double electric pumps like these for mothers to use. Also, the Preemie Plus programme for Symphony is designed specifically for premature babies’ mums. With this program, Medela helps mothers who are dependent on a breastpump, to initiate and maintain human milk production.

Initiation is very important for the premature mums – by starting to pumping often, the better chances they have to establish a good supply. Ideally they will start pumping with the Preemie + within the first 2-3 hours and then pump regularly. Also it is important to note that the programme is designed for all mums that are separated from their infant in the first days after birth, not just premature infants. A new study available online shows the addition of a unique pumping pattern can help mothers of premature infants pump nearly 75 percent more breast milk over the first 14 days after birth.

Milk is Like Medicine for a Premature Baby

In the NICU, it is especially important for premature babies to get the protective benefits of breastmilk. Premature babies are at higher risk for certain health problems, so it is crucially important to give these little ones breastmilk to help them grow, overcome the risks of complications, and reduce their risk of infections. Watch this video for more information on why breastmilk is important for babies in the NICU.

Some mothers might assume that they might not be “ready” to produce breastmilk, since their child was born pre-term. But this is not true! In fact, several studies found that preterm milk is better for premature babies than “regular” breastmilk. Preterm breastmilk tends to contain more fat, protein, and higher levels of the minerals sodium, chloride, and iron than in “term” milk.

The variation in nutrient content seems to be specifically or accidentally designed by nature to benefit a preterm baby. Preterm milk also has higher levels of antibodies to protect against infection. This makes breastmilk – for premature babies as well as for full term babies – the ideal “first food” for infants.

Breastmilk Pumping Creates a Connection with Your Baby

Moms often feel powerless when they give birth to a baby prematurely. But expressing breastmilk for a preterm baby is one of the ultimate acts of a mother’s love! Many premature babies are too weak or unable to feed at the breast – so breastmilk pumping exclusively is the only option. If you can, sit close to your baby and if possible touch to make a connection. If you are exclusively breastpumping, your baby can still have your breastmilk – either through a tube that runs from her nose or mouth down into her stomach or by bottle or cup. It is the best thing you can do! And even if your baby is spending most of her day in an incubator, there are ways for you to let her know that her mother is present and that she is loved.

Power of Exclusive Pumping for Your Preemie

One of the challenges for a breastpump-dependent mom in the NICU is that you need to keep pumping breastmilk very frequently. If your baby is not feeding from the breast at all, then you will need to express frequently in order to establish and maintain your milk supply: perhaps 8–10 times a day. And you need to be prepared to keep pumping for the intermediate future: you will need to exclusively breast pump until your baby is ready and able to breastfeed.

Make Yourself at Home in the NICU

Having a premature baby is sometimes very challenging and exhausting. Being parents of a premature baby and spending so many hours in the NICU is a whole new world that most other parents never experience and don’t understand. The NICU is home to all kinds of technology and machines, and it might help you feel more comfortable there if you take some time to read about and understand some of the NICU equipment that is helping to ease your baby’s early life outside the womb.

The more familiar and comfortable you are with the NICU environment, the more you will be able to build a closer relationship with your preemie and give them the best chance to grow strong! As part of “making yourself at home” in the NICU, try to make your pumping sessions as much of a “bonding” session as possible. When you are pumping, get within sight of your baby if possible. Ask the health professionals if you can place your baby against your body for skin-to-skin contact, or let them nuzzle the breast even if they are not yet ready to nurse. Be motivated knowing you are doing one massively important thing that will really help your baby get stronger and thrive.

This is easier said than done, but try to get plenty of rest and reduce your stress levels. Fatigue, pain, and stress – all of which are common among mothers of premature babies – may hinder you from reaching your milk production potential. Make sleep a priority. Do relaxing activities like reading, knitting, listening to music (on headphones), or other favourite (quiet) pastimes. Consider getting a massage regularly – this can be a big stress reliever and can reduce any lingering physical discomfort that you might be having from the process of pregnancy, labour and birth.

Many moms of premature babies might wonder if it is OK to take pain medication. Don’t be afraid to take pain medications that your doctor has prescribed. These medications can be used safely with breastfeeding, and pain relief is important to milk production. In some instances, prescription medications may be used to stimulate prolactin and increase the milk supply.

Finally, look for ways to keep your partner involved and stay connected to each other. Having a premature baby can be stressful for your relationship with your spouse – your husband might feel even more helpless and powerless than you do. So make sure to take time to re-connect with each other each day, in the NICU or at the hospital cafeteria or out for a walk. Give your partner things to do so that they feel helpful – give them permission to be involved and feel empowered to make a difference for you and for the baby.

This time in the NICU won’t last forever. With today’s advanced technology and treatment techniques, the prognosis for premature babies has improved dramatically compared to previous generations. Hopefully soon you’ll have a full-size, happy baby, who grows into a toddler, and then a kindergartner, and then a high school graduate, and one day you’ll look back in amazement that they were ever so small.

But for every day you spend in the NICU, don’t be afraid to make it meaningful for you and your family. Regardless of the timing and medical circumstances of your baby’s birth, you’re still the baby’s mother – you’re doing the best that you can, and you deserve to feel good about the process, during these early weeks of your baby’s life, of fully becoming a mother. Keep pumping. Keep up your milk supply. Keep working closely with the nurses and doctors and technicians on the NICU team to create a nurturing and healthy environment for your growing baby.

The NICU, in a way, is really a microcosm of parenthood – whether we realize it or not, parenting is not only about a mother and father; it really does take a village to raise a child, and we all rely on each other to help our children grow. Life in the NICU shows this lesson vividly and beautifully. Best wishes to all of the health professionals who serve in NICUs throughout Canada, and best wishes to all of those brave moms and dads, and all those little ones in the incubators who are being so quietly courageous and indescribably strong every day.

What are your thoughts? Do you have experience with pumping breastmilk for a premature baby? What helped you get through the days and nights in the NICU? Do you have any memories that you’d like to share? Please leave a comment and let us know, or join the discussion on the Medela Canada Facebook page.

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