Navigate Life Texas: Resources for kids with disabilities and special needs

Navigate Life Texas: Resources for kids with disabilities and special needs

The Power of Breast Milk in the NICU

05/16/2016 | Published by: Sherry Santa

When I found out that I was having triplets, I didn’t know how I would manage breastfeeding 3 babies at once. But I really wanted to make it work. My mom and sisters had breastfed their babies, and I had grieved missing the experience when I adopted my 3 oldest children and became a mother for the first time.

I was only 22 weeks along when I started labor and ended up in the hospital, so breastfeeding was the last thing on my mind. I just wanted healthy babies. I knew that if I could keep them inside for 1 more week, they could survive. I was so scared during that hospital stay, but early on, a neonatologist talked to me about the power of breast milk and gave me hope.

I knew that breast milk was good for babies, but it turns out that it is almost like medicine for premature babies. I learned that mothers of premature babies produce milk that perfectly meets their unique needs; it is higher in protein and certain minerals and has types of fats that are different from other breast milk. The fat helps the baby’s brain and nervous system develop.

Breast milk is also easier than formula for premature babies to digest and absorb, and it contains special antibodies to fight disease and infection. The doctor told me that when my babies came, I could help them grow strong by pumping my milk and feeding it to my babies as soon as they were ready, even if they were too weak to nurse. Pumping would build and maintain my milk supply until my babies were big enough to nurse on their own. 

The doctor encouraged me to consider also using donor milk from our local milk bank. The milk bank collects, screens, and pasteurizes breast milk donated by generous women with extra to spare. It is tested to make sure that it’s safe for babies. Using donated milk is a way that premature babies (or other babies with special health-care needs) can receive the benefits of breast milk if their mothers are unable to breastfeed or pump. Donor milk is prescribed by a doctor only, and most milk is reserved for premature babies in hospitals. Talk to your doctor if you think your baby may benefit from donor milk.

A little over 11 weeks after being admitted into the hospital, my girls were born by C-section at 31 weeks and 2 days. They were rushed to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), and I was left alone, afraid and aching, while my husband visited them. I was not allowed to see them for 6 long hours. In the meantime the only mommy thing I could do was to start pumping, and thus began my love-hate relationship with the yellow breast pump.

Pumping my breast milk was the only thing I could control during those early days when my babies were in the NICU. I couldn’t even touch them without special instructions from hospital staff. I pumped as much as I could, and delivering even just the smallest amount of milk in carefully labeled bottles gave me more power.

As the babies grew, they needed more milk than I could pump. After talking to the doctor more and getting a special order for donor milk, the babies started receiving milk from our local milk bank. They were around 2 weeks old. At first, my husband thought that giving another woman’s breast milk to our girls was strange, but he warmed up to the idea when he saw the girls growing and thriving. He soon also realized that supplementing with donor milk took the pressure off me — being responsible for feeding 3 little babies is a lot of hard work!

I breastfed the babies as soon as they were healthy and strong enough to attempt latching and nursing. I had looked forward to this for so long, and I really wanted quiet, private time with my husband and each baby as we learned to breastfeed together. I made my desire clear to the NICU staff, but sure enough, just as I settled down and attempted to feed my daughter, a therapist threw back the curtain and interrupted our private time. I refused to let her take the baby from me and demanded that she leave us alone for a while. I attempted to nurse each baby like this with mixed results; they were still so small and got tired quickly at the breast. While we didn’t master breastfeeding that day, I forever will treasure those precious moments that I spent with each of my daughters and husband. During our next attempt the following day, a lactation therapist held my breast as a speech therapist stood over my right shoulder, and a nurse positioned each baby to help her latch.

The babies continued to nurse throughout their stay in the NICU, mostly for comfort, because they were receiving enough nutrition from pumped and donor milk. Holding them and nurturing that emotional connection was important to me, and I am convinced that it helped them heal from being premature. They received both my pumped milk and donor milk, and eventually, when their tummies were ready, they started formula. My husband and I marveled at their steady growth, and I was so proud to see my hard work and dedication pay off. 

Miraculously, all of our girls came home from the hospital on the same day when they were just over 1 month old. The smallest of our babies, born weighing just 2 pounds and 11 ounces, developed a strong appetite and caught up to her sisters. Now, at 7 years old, she is the biggest of them all. We stopped breastfeeding and pumping when the babies were 3 months old.  Bringing the babies home from the NICU was an emotional roller coaster, and we decided that feeding them formula would be the best for our family and for my mental health.

Deciding how to feed your babies is a personal decision all parents make. I gained the following pearls of wisdom from my experience with the triplets:

  • There is no right or wrong way to be a parent.
  • Babies have different needs, even if they are born a minute apart.
  • Stick up for yourself and for your decisions in the hospital. No, we didn’t get breastfeeding perfectly right that first time, but guarding our private time together was the right decision for my family.
  • Be honest and acknowledge your own grief when you have a child in the NICU.  Seek help when you need it.
  • Be patient with yourself and with your baby as you learn to breastfeed. Breastfeeding can be frustrating for both new moms and babies, who are learning a new skill too. And pumping can be very time consuming.
  • Work with your doctor to figure out a healthy feeding plan for your baby.

I hope my story helps other parents of children with special health-care needs figure out what is right for them and realize that there are different ways to give your children the benefit of breast milk.

National Milk Bank has more information about milk banks. They send milk to hospitals all around the country.

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