Establishing Your Breastmilk Supply in the NICU

The NICU is never a place you hope and wish for your baby to end up. Sometimes though, life throws us a major curveball and the unexpected just happens. Being in the NICU with Bryn for 27 days was extremely difficult. There isn’t a lot you can control during that time, which makes the things you can control that much more precious.

The breastmilk you can supply for your baby is one of those few things you can (sort of) control. I know breastfeeding and pumping is not for every mama and that is one million percent OK. You always have to do what is best for you and your baby. I had a few sweet mamas from all different points in my life reach out during our experience to offer advice and I want to pass that on here. If you find yourself in the NICU needing and wanting to pump milk for your babe, here are a few tips I’ve learned that helped me tremendously.

**I am not a certified lactation consultant. These are simply things that have helped me personally.

Pump Every 2-3 Hours… During the Day

When you start out in the NICU your baby will likely be taking their feeds through an NG tube. You may be able to practice breastfeeding, but your main job will be to pump milk for your baby. They say to pump at least as often as your baby eats. This should be every two to three hours around the clock. Aside from the first night (when I desperately needed sleep to recover from my C-section), I did try to stick to pumping every three hours for the first week. This being my first preemie and my first time exclusively pumping, I had no idea what to expect with my milk supply. It took about 5 days for my milk to come in and my supply wasn’t fully established until about two weeks after delivering.

I think pumping every three hours up front helped to establish that supply and also allowed me to be more relaxed after the first week. After that week, I would continue to pump at least every three hours or less during the day and allow myself five hour stretches at night. It was refreshing to get longer stretches of sleep, especially after such emotionally taxing days in the NICU.

Pump For About 10 Minutes

This is a tip I picked up from the lactation consultants at the hospital. I was pumping for 15-20 minutes every session which really adds up when you are doing it so often. With the hospital grade pump (which you can, and DEFINITELY should rent to bring home while your baby is in the NICU), you will see the majority of milk production happen in the first 10 minutes. After that there is no real benefit to pump longer. It feels like less of a commitment to only pump for 10 minutes every three hours. You can do just about anything for 10 minutes!

Use a Cooler Bag Overnight

A coworker introduced me to the cooler bag a few years ago and it’s a serious game changer when you are pumping so often. During the day in the NICU I would wash my parts after every pumping session. At night, however, I would store them in the cooler bag in the refrigerator after using them instead of washing. This way you are still keeping them clean to use since they are staying refrigerated and you can skip the extra five minutes of washing! My favorite bag is this Sarah Wells wet/dry bag, linked below when you click on the image.

Find Supplements that Work for You

The day I delivered I started pounding lactation cookies and Body Armor drinks like it was my job! This being my third baby that I’ve breastfed, I know these things work for me and I even know which lactation cookies work best for me (linked below). These supplements really helped to up my milk supply, but I also know of a few supplements that actually decrease my supply as well. It’s a trial and error process and I’m sure the lactation consultants can help you with this. I also recommend watching your supply and stopping any supplements when you are at a good place because an over supply is just as bad as an under supply! For a pick-me-up treat, try out the Pink drink at Starbucks. It’s made with coconut milk which is very hydrating and can give your supply a boost! (Does contain caffeine)

Call the NICU and Smell (or Hold) Your Baby

These were some great tips from my fellow NICU mamas. If you aren’t able to stay at the NICU with your baby overnight, you can actually call in to your nurse and get an update on your baby. Leaving Bryn overnight was devastating to me every night, but getting a sweet update gave me something to look forward to and a reason to get out of bed to pump.

It also helped me to take a burp rag or blanket home so that I could smell her sweet baby smell while I pumped. When I was at the NICU during the day, holding my baby or doing skin to skin time while pumping always gave me a higher output.

Practice Breastfeeding Often

It was often discouraging and time consuming trying to practice breastfeeding, pump, and help Bryn learn to use a bottle all in one feeding time. I often wanted to drop the breastfeeding practice to save time and allow myself more sleep once she was at home. I am so glad we kept up with this routine because it paid off big time in the end. All of that practicing definitely helped to increase my supply. It always seemed to me that Bryn was not going to fully get the hang of breastfeeding enough to switch over full time, but just before her due date she totally flipped a switch and we were able to drop the pumping almost all together! And remember… if you don’t have the same experience, that’s ok too! Exclusively pumping or dropping it all together are both amazing choices. Do what is best for you and for baby!

All of this advice is just to say… hang in there and keep going! The difficult times will be over before you know it and everything will be normal and right in your world once again. There are so many people waiting to support you and help you in this journey.

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