Breastfeeding your baby in the NICU can be a wonderful way to bond with your child and provide them with the best possible nutrition. But it can also be challenging because so many medically complex babies have trouble feeding at the beginning of their life. Here is a guide from our neonatology team to help you get started.

Should I provide breast milk for my premature or medically complex newborn?

If you are able to, yes. Breastfeeding offers many benefits for NICU babies such as:

  • Improved nutrition: Breast milk provides babies with the nutrients they need to grow and develop. 
  • Less risk of infection: Breast milk has antibodies that help protect babies from getting sick.
  • Good gut health: Breast milk encourages healthy bacteria to grow in the baby's gut, which can help to prevent digestive problems.
  • Reduced risk of allergies and asthma: Studies have shown that breast milk can reduce the risk of developing allergies and asthma later in life.
  • Bonding time: Breastfeeding and pumping milk can help you to bond with your baby, making them feel comfortable and secure.

How to provide breast milk to a baby in the NICU

Providing breast milk in the NICU can be done through pumping milk, direct breastfeeding or both.  This can be different from how you will feed your baby at home. Here are some tips to help you get started:

  • Talk to your baby’s care team: They can help you to develop a plan that is right for you and your baby.
  • Use a breast pump: If your baby is not yet able to breastfeed directly, you can use a breast pump to express milk to bottle feed or feed through a tube. Every drop of breast milk is important. 
  • Skin-to-skin time: Skin-to-skin contact is a great way to bond with your baby and encourage breastfeeding and breast milk production. Hold your baby close to your skin, chest to chest.  
  • Be patient and keep trying: It may take some time for your milk supply to fully develop and even longer for your baby to learn how to directly breastfeed.

>Related: Answers to the most common questions about breastfeeding


What are the challenges of breastfeeding NICU babies?

There are some challenges that you may face when breastfeeding in the NICU, such as:

  • Baby not being able to feed directly:  Again, use a breast pump to express milk. Ask your hospital if you are able to rent theirs for the duration of your baby’s stay.
  • Baby having trouble latching: If this is the case, your NICU’s lactation expert can help you to find a comfortable position and suggest ways to improve latching.
  • Baby not breastfeeding very often: Babies in the NICU may not be quite strong enough to try breastfeeding more than once or twice a day.  Pumping milk in between is important to keep up your supply until the baby can breastfeed more often.
  • Feeling overwhelmed or stressed: : Providing breast milk and breastfeeding in the NICU aren't always easy. It is important to seek support, and accept help without guilt, from our staff and your loved ones.

>Related: What's the difference between NICU levels? 

Support for providing breast milk and breastfeeding for NICU moms and babies:

There is a lot of support available to help you breastfeed your NICU baby. Your NICU will be able to connect you with:

  • Hospital support staff: The staff at the NICU will be able to provide you with information and support, from navigating emotions to dealing with insurance coverage. 
  • Lactation consultants: Lactation consultants are specially trained to help mothers with breastfeeding. They can provide you with one-on-one support and guidance.
  • Support groups: Ask your lactation nurse about support groups available for mothers who are breastfeeding NICU babies. These groups can provide you with a sense of community.

Feeding breast milk to your NICU baby can be a wonderful and rewarding experience. With the right support, it is possible to overcome any challenges and offer your baby the best possible nutrition.

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