Breastfeeding Your Baby in the NICU
Why is breast milk important?
Breast milk is the best first food for your baby. It is loaded with rich nutrients and helps protect your newborn from infection and illness. For the premature infant, breast milk is like a special medicine created just for your baby. Benefits of breast milk include:
- Easier for infants to digest than formula
- Contains antibodies to protect newborns from infection
- Can improve neurodevelopmental outcomes as your infant grows
- Allows you to be an active participant in your baby’s care
Establishing your milk supply
It is important for you to start pumping as soon as possible after delivery to start building up your milk supply. Let your nurse know that you plan on breastfeeding and that you will need a breast pump and kit. If you need an electric pump to establish your milk supply, please talk to the hospital’s lactation consultant or call the St. Louis Children’s Hospital newborn intensive care unit (NICU) at 314.454.6037 and have the lactation consultant paged.
Initial pumping after delivery
Your first milk, called colostrum, may not seem like much, but this milk is vital for your baby to receive. It is rich with nutrients that are beneficial to your baby! To start pumping, use a hospital-grade electric breast pump. Always wash your hands thoroughly before pumping, or expressing, milk. It is also helpful to drink plenty of fluids while you breastfeed to help with your milk supply.
Pump your breasts every 2-3 hours for 20 minutes. Pump both breasts at the same time. You should pump 8 times in a 24 hour period. Pump directly into the small plastic bottles. Save all milk that drops into the bottle – even small drops!
Once finished, label each bottle with the date and time pumped and place the bottle in the refrigerator. Breast milk can also be frozen for several months. Wash and dry your pumping equipment after each use.
Breast milk storage
Fresh expressed milk can be stored in the refrigerator and must be used within 48 hours after pumping. Milk that was frozen should be used within 24 hours after thawing.
You may send your milk to your baby in the St. Louis Children’s Hospital NICU with dad or another family member. Milk must stay cold, so use an insulated cooler and ice packs to keep the milk cold while it is transported.
Visiting your baby in the NICU
Once you are able to visit your baby in the NICU, we recommend bringing:
- Your breast pump kit. The NICU has electric pumps and special lactation rooms available for your use.
- Cold or frozen breast milk that you have pumped while away from the hospital.
- A cup with a lid so you can have something to drink while you visit. It’s important to drink plenty of fluids while you’re breastfeeding.
- A button-down shirt for skin-to-skin holding of your baby. You may want to leave the shirt at your baby’s bedside when you leave.
- Questions that you have for your baby’s nurse, physician or the hospital’s lactation consultant.
You will need an electric breast pump for home use to establish your milk supply while your baby is in the NICU. Our lactation consultants and case managers can help you get started.
Services provided to NICU parents
At St. Louis Children’s Hospital, we are here to support your important decision to breastfeed. For our breastfeeding moms, we have:
- Certified lactation consultants
- Well-trained staff
- Educational materials
- Hospital-grade electric breast pumps to use while you visit your baby
- Private lactation rooms
- Free meal vouchers to use at the hospital cafeteria or for dining-on-call
Questions about breastfeeding?
We understand that breastfeeding can be challenging at first. If you have any questions or concerns about breastfeeding, please contact your baby’s nurse in the NICU and ask to have the lactation consultant paged. We’re here to help.