While pregnant with my first baby; like most other expectant parents, I read everything I could about pregnancy and newborn care. With all of my heart I wanted to give my precious baby the best possible start in life and believed that breastfeeding would be an important part of my baby’s early life. I was fortunate to be working in a hospital at that time that had a full-time lactation consultant. I visited her several times to learn as much as I could in advance. When my beautiful baby girl was born (10 days late!); I had every intention of nursing her moments after delivery, and I did.
Two years later our unexpected pregnancy took an interesting turn when we learned that I was carrying triplets. Again I prepared myself that best I could and although I knew my babies would be born early I had hoped to breastfeed them and provide the same best start possible. Unfortunately, I learned quickly that providing breastmilk to babies in the NICU was not as easy as I had hoped. I learned to use the breast pump the morning after I delivered and to divide the very few drops of “liquid gold” I was able to produce into 3 separate containers so that each of my babies would be able to receive the gift of my early milk (colostrum). I color coded everything, including their breastmilk so that my first baby who was well enough to receive my milk would not get ALL of my colostrum. Some days later, when my last baby was ready to start receiving breastmilk he was also able to also receive some of the very first breastmilk. The more I learned about all of the long term health benefits of preemies receiving breastmilk for as long as possible I was determined to help my precious newborns as much as I could. The NICU was such a foreign place and although the staff was nice and kind; I felt as if I was an outsider looking in on the care of MY babies. I felt quite helpless at times and could not wait until I could hold and care for my babies. If giving my babies my breastmilk was the only thing I could do that no one else could do and it had so very many health benefits; then of course I was going to do this.
When my first child was born a nurse helped me with each of my first attempts to put her to my breast. She showed me how help her latch on and how to change breasts and then how to breathe through the discomfort once my milk came in. A nurse was with me maybe 6 different times before we were discharged from the hospital. I felt prepared and comfortable and had the resources and support I needed if I had questions about breastfeeding once we were home. My experience with our triplets was quite different. Our nursing staff was wonderful, kind and absolutely medically adept but there was little to no support when I asked to try to put my healthiest baby to my breast at what would have been 34 weeks gestation.
It is a very widely accepted how important breastmilk is for ALL newborns. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that all newborns receive breastmilk for ideally their first year of life. How much more important it should be for a baby that is born early or has medical challenges soon after delivery. The medical literature supporting the positive health advantages for a preemie who has received breastmilk is overwhelming. Over the last 25 plus years I have been working with families of multiple birth children and families of preemies I have been greatly disheartened to see that the support of providing breastmilk in the NICU and adequately preparing new mothers for the transition from pump to breast PRIOR to discharge has not kept up with all of the support new mothers of term infants receive.
My hope for all mothers of preemies is that they will have the same opportunity to nurse their baby at the breast at least 9 times prior to discharge from the NICU with the help and support of a nurse or lactation consultant by their side mentoring them much in the same way I had with my singleton term infant almost 30 years ago. If a mother of an at risk infant is to have a successful breastfeeding experience she needs to receive, at the very least, the same help and support as that of a full term infant. We all know how exhausting and challenging it can be for any new parent adapting to the myriad of needs of a newborn during the first few weeks and months after delivery. For a parent of preemie who may have ongoing medical challenges, be at risk for medical and developmental issues the transition from NICU to home can be exceptionally challenging for families. How much easier it would be for a mom to be able to nurse at the breast then to have to pump and then feed a bottle to her baby. How much more likely she would be to continue to provide breastmilk for her baby (or babies) if she could streamline the process and just put her baby to the breast? Preemie parents can use all of the help and support prior to discharge to ideally make this transition as easy as possible. If our moms of preemies are to have any chance of giving their babies the best start possible and ideally living up to the recommendations of the AAP and other medical professionals they need to have the same support and resources as do other new mothers.
Information and resources: CDC Breastfeeding FAQ