By Cheryl Chotrani

If you’ve ever given birth to a baby that spent time in the NICU, you were probably reminded over and over again by your baby’s doctors and nurses that breast milk is best.  The health benefits of breast milk for babies, especially those born prematurely, are well documented and supported by years of solid medical research.  If a mother of a premature baby is able to provide breast milk, it is by all means the best thing to do.  Unfortunately, breastfeeding or pumping for a baby born too soon is not always so easy to do.  Many mothers have difficulty building up their milk supply, which can be all the more challenging to accomplish when dealing with the added stress and trauma of the NICU.  Other mothers have to go back to work soon after their baby’s birth or have other children at home that demand their attention in addition to having a child in the hospital, leaving little time to dedicate towards pumping.  There are many other reasons why providing breast milk for a premature baby can be challenging, and in some cases, not feasible.

When my son was born 16 weeks early just over 4 years ago, I dealt with many of these issues.  Because he was so small at birth, I was not able to hold him until he was almost 6 weeks old.  Without the physical connection with my son, my milk supply was slow to develop at first.  On top of that, I went back to work three weeks after my son’s birth so that I could take maternity leave once he came home.  Juggling work, daily visits to the hospital and trying to pump every three hours at the office and through the night was no easy feat.  But somehow, after the first few weeks, my milk supply started to improve and I was able to continue pumping for seven months.

If you’re a NICU mom having trouble providing breast milk, you are not alone.  But, if you want to continue trying to make pumping or breastfeeding work, there are some things you can do.  Here are some of the things that worked for me while I was pumping for my son.

 Find out all of your options

Many hospitals provide a lactation room for NICU moms as well as access to a refrigerator or freezer for storing breast milk, and many employers are required by federal and/or state laws to provide their female employees with a comfortable place to pump during the year following their baby’s birth.  You may also be able to get a breast pump covered through your health insurance, although it may not be a hospital-grade pump.  But if your baby’s hospital is under-resourced, you don’t have health insurance that provides breastfeeding benefits, you work at a small company and/or you don’t qualify for government assistance, getting everything you need to pump – the pump, storage containers, refrigerator/freezer space and a comfortable space – can be challenging. But with a little resourcefulness, you may be able to find ways to get what you need.  In my case, I was pumping both at home and at work and it was cumbersome to carry the hospital-grade pump I was using at home into work every day, especially since I was using public transportation for my commute.  I found out that there were four other mothers at the time who were also pumping at my office and a few other women with babies on the way.  We all collaborated to jointly purchase a pump for the office, which was later reimbursed by the company, and as long as we all brought our own flanges and storage containers, we could share the same pump.

Get support from others

Making pumping work requires the support of your family, friends and co-workers.  Let all the important people in your life know that you are pumping and ask for the time and space you need.  Ask family members to help with cleaning pumping supplies, borrow refrigerator or freezer space from friends and neighbors, and request that co-workers schedule meetings to accommodate your pumping routine.

Herbal remedies are not a quick fix, but may help some

There are many herbal products on the market that promise to increase your milk supply.  Many of them include herbs like fenugreek, alfalfa, raspberry leaf, blessed thistle and fennel.  Not all herbs are safe for preemies, so check with your baby’s doctor before taking any herbal remedies.  While I was pumping, I enjoyed drinking Mother’s Milk Tea, which you can get at Whole Food’s or Amazon.  I’m not sure if it helped increase my milk supply at all, but if nothing else, a placebo effect may have been beneficial.

 Take care of yourself

In addition to getting as much sleep as possible, experts recommend drinking lots of water and making sure to eat a healthy and balanced diet.  But, the most important thing is to de-stress and to do what is best for you and your health, even if that means that you stop pumping earlier than you originally planned.  Just remember that any breast milk, even a small amount, is helpful for your baby.  So don’t worry too much if you’ve done all you can and it’s just not working.  Having a baby in the NICU is one of the most harrowing experiences any mother could go through, so it’s ok to give yourself a break.

These are just some of the things that worked for me, but every mother’s situation is unique.  If you’re trying to provide breast milk for a preemie, we’d love to hear your stories and tips.  Reach out to us at info@pebblesofhope.org or connect with us on Facebook or Twitter.

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