Before your baby was born, you probably dreamed about what it would be like to hold and feed her. And you may have already decided to feed your baby breast milk or formula. But now that your baby is in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), you may need to adjust your plans. Because feeding is so central to nurturing your baby, your plans and decisions are likely to be loaded with emotion for you.
Use the combination of breast milk and formula, bottle-feeding and nursing that works best for you and your baby.
Breast milk provides many wonderful and vital health benefits for all newborns, especially premature or sick babies. But many NICU babies aren't ready to feed from the breast at first. The mother can learn how to pump her milk so it can be delivered by tube to the baby's stomach. If your baby can't suckle, tube feeding is the best way for him to get your breast milk.
If you must pump, you may feel sad and disappointed to substitute an electric pump for a warm, hungry baby. This is not how you planned it. And yet, providing breast milk for your baby can soothe your sorrow over his hospitalization. Breast milk is something truly special and beneficial that you can give your baby. And when your baby is ready to suckle, you can start putting him to the breast.
Here are some ideas for meeting the challenges of breastfeeding your baby in the NICU:
If you wanted to breastfeed but then decided not to, or are forced to give it up, you may feel disappointed. Remember that you can have a close and rewarding relationship with your bottle-fed baby. You can experience the closeness of breastfeeding by cuddling your baby against your warm skin and letting your baby observe your face. You can also continue to do kangaroo care for many months.
Babies thrive with formula feeding, too. There are a number of formula options, and the NICU team will recommend one for your baby.
You may need to wait a while before you feed your baby from the bottle. If she is very premature or ill, she may first require gavage feeding, where a thin tube is inserted through the baby's nose or mouth to the stomach, and the formula is inserted into the tube. Your baby's nurse can show you how to give your baby her gavage feeding, so you can take on the important role of providing nourishment.
Breastfeeding Your Premature Baby, by Gwen Gotsch (La Leche League International, 1999).
Created by the American College of Nurse-Midwives to provide breastfeeding information and resources for mothers and families
International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners
Provides referrals to breastfeeding consultants. (703) 560-7330.
La Leche League International
Provides referral to breastfeeding consultants. (800) LA-LECHE.
National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition
Has publications on breastfeeding at home or at work, in English and Spanish. State/local chapters. (703) 836-6110.
State WIC Programs
Provide breastfeeding promotion and support.
The Ultimate Breastfeeding Book of Answers, by Jack Newman and Teresa Pitman (Prima Communications, 2000).
The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, by Gwen Gotsch and Judy Torgas (Plume, 1997).
See also: Share your story
Excerpted from the March of Dimes booklet, "Parent: You & Your Baby in the NICU", written in collaboration with Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D., and Mara Tesler Stein, Psy.D., authors of "Parenting Your Premature Baby and Child: The Emotional Journey".
It depends on your baby's health overall. Some newborn intensive care units (NICUs) will encourage you to hold your baby from birth onward. Other NICUs will want you to wait until your baby's health is stable. Ask your NICU staff about its policy on kangaroo care (holding your baby on your bare chest). Kangaroo care has benefits for both you and your baby. The skin-to-skin contact is a precious way to be close to your baby. You may be afraid you'll hurt him by holding him. But you won't. Your baby knows your scent, touch and the rhythms of your speech and breathing, and he’ll enjoy feeling that closeness with you.
Not all newborn intensive care unit (NICU) babies are born premature. Some babies, even those born full term, may need special care. Your baby may need to spend some time in the NICU if she had a difficult delivery, has breathing problems, has infections or has birth defects.
Most babies leave the NICU just fine. Others may need more special care once they're home.