Breastfeeding your baby in the NICU
Breast milk is wonderful food for your baby. It has vitamins, nutrients and antibodies that can help him get stronger. Some babies will be able to breastfeed in the NICU, while other babies may need to get breast milk from a bottle or feeding tube.
Fully breastfeeding a baby who has been in the NICU can be challenging. But most babies, even those born very prematurely or with certain birth defects such as Down syndrome or cleft lip and palate, can learn to breastfeed. If you are going to breastfeed, get all the help you can from the hospital's lactation consultant and your baby's nurses before your baby goes home. Pump your milk when you are not with your baby to keep up your milk supply.
Some babies leave the NICU breastfeeding only. If you are not able to provide any or all of your baby's nutrition by breastfeeding, don't feel bad. Your baby will benefit from any breast milk you can provide. Use the combination of breast milk and formula that works best for you and your baby.
Breastfeeding mothers often worry that their baby isn't getting enough to eat. That's because they can't see exactly how much their baby is eating. One way to know if your baby is getting enough is to count the number of wet and dirty diapers she has each day. Typically, a baby who is getting enough to eat will have at least five wet diapers and two to five dirty diapers in a 24-hour period.
Some moms have a hard time breastfeeding at home. Before giving up, ask for help from:
- A lactation consultant
- A breastfeeding support group
- Your baby's health care provider
You may worry that you're not making enough milk, even though you're feeding your baby on demand or pumping. Try to increase your milk supply by:
- Getting more rest
- Drinking more water
- Eating well
- Pumping after or before feedings
- Pumping for the same amount of time each time you pump
- Pumping in a quiet, comfortable place where you can relax
Ask a lactation consultant about supplements you can take to increase your milk supply. With a little effort, most women can build up their supply. As your baby grows and thrives, your efforts will be rewarded many times over.
A breastfeeding Web site sponsored by the American College of Nurse Midwives
American Academy of Pediatrics
International Lactation Consultant Association
La Leche League International
An online community of mothers and nursing professionals
See also: Share your story
Last reviewed August 2014
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it OK to hold my baby in the NICU?
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.
My baby was born full term. Why is she in the NICU?
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.