Breastfeeding in the NICU

Breastfeeding can be challenging for any new mom. But if you had a premature birth (birth that happens before 37 weeks of pregnancy) and your baby is in the neonatal intensive care unit (also called NICU), thinking about breastfeeding can be stressful. Although feeding your baby may be a little different than what you may have imagined, even if your baby was born prematurely, you can still feed her breastmilk in the NICU.

The benefits of breastfeeding

For the first few days after giving birth, your breasts make a thick, yellowish breast milk called colostrum. Even if you make only a few drops, use it to feed your baby. Your milk is designed to meet your baby’s needs.

The milk you make in the early days has a high amount of antibodies to help her fight off infection.  It has vitamins and nutrients that can help her get stronger. Breast milk changes as your baby grows so your baby gets exactly what she needs at the right time. This is true even if your baby was born early.

How to feed your baby in the NICU

The way you feed your baby depends on her medical condition and how well she can suck and swallow. Some babies can breastfeed in the NICU, while others may need to get breast milk from a bottle or feeding tube. If your baby is too small, sick or has a birth defect that prevents her from breastfeeding, you can feed her breast milk that you pump from your breasts. A breast pump helps remove milk from your breasts. A nurse or lactation consultant in the NICU can show you how to use the pump. A lactation consultant is a person with special training that helps women breastfeed.

As soon as your baby can, let her practice sucking at your breast to get ready for breastfeeding. This is called non-nutritive sucking. Here’s how to do it: Pump your breasts until they’re empty. Then let your baby touch and taste your breast to help her get used to what breastfeeding is like.

If you’re not breastfeeding, ask the NICU nurses about getting breast milk from a donor (also called donor breast milk). Donor breast milk is breast milk that’s been donated to a milk bank. They receive and store donated breast milk, test it to make sure it’s safe and send it to families of babies who need it.

Getting the right support

Your body starts to make breast milk about 3 to 4 days after giving birth. But some women may have trouble making breast milk, especially those who had health problems before, during or after their baby was born. If you’re having problems or are worried that you’re not making enough milk you can seek out the help of a lactation consultant. Ask your healthcare provider, nurse, or the NICU nurses for more information or ask them if your hospital has lactation support services.

To learn more about breastfeeding support visit:

Establishing your milk supply

If you’re worried that you’re not making enough breast milk, talk with a nurse or lactation consultant in the NICU. You may be able to build up your milk supply (the amount of milk you make when breastfeeding) by:

  • Getting rest. Your body produces more milk when it’s rested.
  • Eating healthy foods and drinking a lot of fluid, like water, juice or milk. When you breastfeed, your body loses fluid. It’s important that you get that fluid back through what you drink.
  • Using a breast pump after or between feedings. When you pump your breasts often, they make more breast milk.
  • Pumping your breasts until they’re empty each time you pump
  • Doing kangaroo care (also called skin-to-skin care). This is when you put your baby, dressed only in a diaper, on your bare chest.