Tips for breastfeeding a hospitalized baby

Guest post by Kate
By: Nana B AgyeiCC BY 2.0

My baby was seven weeks old when he was hospitalized for the first time, and he was either not nursing, or not nursing well for two-to-three weeks. There were many times when he wasn’t allowed oral nutrition at all, and I pumped. The third time he was hospitalized, however, was really difficult.

I met with a lactation consultant, and she was very helpful, encouraging, and enthusiastic that we would get my supply back up. She put me on an intense pumping schedule — I was pumping 8-10 times a day — but my supply was still lagging. It was impossible to relax and I wasn’t getting second and third letdowns in a session.

Here is what worked for me:

  • Pump until the flow stops
  • Hand express for a few minutes on each side to empty the milk ducts. (Stanford did a study that showed a significant increase in production in moms who hand expressed after pumping.)
  • If breasts still feel heavy, massage-stroke-shake to increase prolactin levels and help move the milk down
  • Repeat these steps at least one more time
  • Drink a big glass of water and eat a snack

You only need to wait 40-60 minutes between pumping sessions. In my experience, it is the frequency, not the length of time you spend pumping, that will stimulate your breasts to increase your supply. In this way, you can pump three times in the morning (then take a two-to-three hour break), three times in the afternoon (then break for dinner), three times in the evening (then go to sleep for four to six hours) and once in the middle of the night. It is a full-time job! I was very fortunate that I didn’t have to work — I would not have been able to do this if I had been working. Luckily this crazy schedule isn’t forever — it took me about 10 days to get my production up where it needed to be.

Pumping this way also became a spiritual practice and a way to deal with my grief. I would sit in the pumping room, plugged in, and meditate. I focused on my breath. I imagined holding my baby. I felt my pain. I imagined my babe enveloped in healing light. Around this time, I read a piece on tonglen from Pema Chodron, and then practiced breathing in the suffering in the PICU, and letting out healthy, healing, nutritious milk for my baby.

Here are some other general tips for when your baby can’t nurse for any reason:

  • Pump every two to three hours for 20 minutes, or however long/often your baby would nurse. Keep up your pumping schedule even if you think your baby will be able to nurse later. Your breasts are never totally empty, and you will make more.
  • Make sure you eat and drink enough. This is really hard, so get the nurse to help you with gentle reminders and by keeping your water pitcher filled.
  • Don’t skip pumping sessions for any reason. Don’t do it!
  • Write down how much you’re pumping. Make sure you’re making enough in a 24 hour period. It’s also helpful to write down things you think might affect your supply, like herbs/supplements you’re taking, your menstrual cycle, your mood, diet, etc.
  • Snuggle your baby as much as possible skin to skin.
  • Get one of those hands-free pumping bras. I love mine from Simple Wishes.

I suppose I need to remind you that I’m not a lactation consultant, and this is not medical advice. I am just a mama who’s been through it wishing you well.

Comments on Tips for breastfeeding a hospitalized baby

  1. I would also recommend for any mothers of hospitalized babies (or anyone who has to, for whatever reason, pump often in place of breastfeeding) that you make sure to seek emotional/psychological support if pumping really wears you down. I had to pump 8-10 times a day for two months after my son was born, and when he was anticipated to be in-patient for an indefinite stay after that point, I just gave up and let my supply run out. Pumping was torture because I associated it with my son’s condition. I fell into a scary depression as a result of the stress of pumping, and I think I could have both lasted longer (I could have started breastfeeding just a few months after that) and felt better about the whole process if I had talked to someone about how I was feeling. I don’t even know where this idea came from, but I had it firmly in my head that I HAD TO PUMP, and that it was going to suck no matter what, so I put my head down and just did it despite pain, sadness, and a lot of frustration. Hospitals sometimes offer some good support options in-house, but my midwives, doula, and OB/GYN all had great connections that I really wish I had taken advantage of.

    • Absolutely. For me, pumping was a way to take a time out (8-10 times a day!) to process all the emotions and all the chaos of our lives in the hospital. I’m lucky that my husband, family, and hospital staff were very supportive.

      It takes a lot of strength and determination to pump exclusively! You are a warrior mama.

  2. This was great! I had to exclusively pump for the first two weeks but was lucky to have my baby at home with me. It was exhausting and incredibly stressful for me, I can’t imagine how much harder it would have been while also dealing with hospitalization.

    One thing that helped me was realizing I needed lots and lots and lots of help. You’re absolutely right that pumping can be a full time job. I needed to let someone else bring me food, refill my water bottle, clean my kitchen, everything that I consider just part of being a grownup to do for myself I had to let go for those two weeks. Pumping and sleeping and staring at your baby–that’s ALL you need to do.

    • Yes! In the weeks my baby couldn’t nurse, getting him my breastmilk felt so important to keeping our connection alive. Pumping for him helped me feel like his mama, even though so much of his care fell to the nurses.

  3. For me pumping was the one thing I had control over during my daughter’s first three weeks in the hospital. Because of this I pumped like our lives depended on it. And sometimes I really think they did. I’ll never know if having my milk as soon as she could via swab and then feeding tube made a difference, but I know it helped me be stronger during that difficult time. Thanks for sharing your tips for other brave mamas!

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