Hand to Hold's Official Blog: Written by Parents for Parents

Breastfeeding in the NICU

Holding my 3 yr old and 24 weekers in the NICUYou can spot them from afar.  The NICU moms are the ones with bags under their eyes gazing enviously upon the moms being wheeled out of the hospital holding their big, healthy babies in their laps balloons floating all around them congratulating them on the birth of their baby.  The NICU moms are the ones with no congratulatory balloons in hand.  Instead, they tote their little coolers back and forth to the NICU daily supplying breast milk to their sick babies.

After delivering my twins 16 weeks early, I wrote this on my blog:

“I bought a twin nursing pillow when I was still pregnant. I had heard it was a “must have” for breastfeeding twins. When I was told that I would finally be able to start breastfeeding, I got it out of storage and hauled it proudly up to the NICU. It is covered in a fabric with a ton of twin sayings on it like “Double Trouble”, “Twice the Fun”, “Two Peas in a Pod”, etc. It was like some banner yelling to passersby, “Hey, I have twins! Do you see this? I HAVE TWINS!” I haven’t been able to push them in their double stroller and there has been no need to set up two of everything in my house when they have been living in the NICU for months. It seemed that this pillow was my only sign to the outside world that I had just had two babies. This pillow has manifested itself into a tangible indicator of my twins’ birth, so I couldn’t wait to try it out. After breastfeeding both babies separately for a while now, I thought I would give tandem breastfeeding a try. I took out the prized pillow, lined the babies up, and attempted to feed them. Of course, I couldn’t take on this formidable task alone. True to the NICU invasion of privacy order, a nurse and her student nurse had to stop in to check on the babies. Instead of checking and then leaving, they just stood there. I’m not sure if they thought I was crazy to try so early, were waiting to see if I needed help, or were just interested in seeing if it would work.  Can we get a little privacy around here?”

Breastfeeding healthy, full-term twins would have been hard enough, but trying to breastfeed micro-preemie twins was a different story altogether.

I’m not the type of person who feels comfortable breastfeeding in the middle of a crowded mall, but I was looking forward to breastfeeding my twins.  I had read articles about how to successfully breastfeed twins and even bought the above-mentioned twin nursing pillow.  I was prepared – that is until my twins decided to enter the world 16 weeks early.

When we were finally given the orders to be allowed to start breastfeeding, I was so excited.  As micro-preemies, all I was able to do for the first month of their lives was touch their little fingers.  I couldn’t even hold them.  Breastfeeding signified a mother-child connection for which I longed.  I wanted them to know they had a mommy who loved them outside of the four walls of their isolettes.

While several nurses and lactation consultants were very helpful in our efforts to breastfeed, I felt that the NICU was not a conducive environment overall for breastfeeding.  It seemed they wanted my breast milk to give the babies but not my breasts.  It was much easier for them to feed the babies when I had the breastmilk all neat and tidy and measured in little containers.  Some nurses even took breast mik out of the freezer despite me telling them I was coming in to breastfeed.  Another complicating factor for breastfeeding in the NICU is time constraints.  I had a 3 year old at home and couldn’t be at the NICU eight times a day every 3 hours during their feeding times.

In the end, I gave up on trying to breastfeed my micro-preemie twins.  My son was given orders to stop all oral feeds after failing a swallow study, and my daughter would tire out too easily.  Our biggest concern for her was to consume enough to gain weight.  I continued to pump breastmilk for them for a year.

Here are some ways to communicate your desires for breastfeeding in the NICU:

  1. Let your nurses know you want to breastfeed when your child is ready.  Call before your child’s feeding time to let them know you are coming in and don’t want them to take out frozen milk.
  2. Ask to see a lactation consultant as soon as you are able to breastfeed.
  3. Ask to not be disturbed while breastfeeding.  Hang a sign outside, “Breastfeeding – Do Not Disturb”, if necessary.
  4. Call ahead to ask if a comfortable chair can be placed by your baby’s bedside.
  5. Ask for a hospital-grade pump to be available at your baby’s bedside when you are finished breastfeeding.
Michelle Hensel About Michelle Hensel

Michelle Hensel (TX) is the mother to three children. Her oldest daughter was born full-term and she unexpectedly delivered her twins at just 23 weeks 5 days, with each weighing 1 lb. 2 oz. and 1 lb. 8 oz. They spent 133 days in the NICU. Although they still face challenges due to their prematurity, they are now active, healthy toddlers. Michelle chronicles her family's journey with former micro-preemie twins and their big sister on her personal blog.


  1. I completely agree. I have had 3 NICU babies, yes 3. All separate experiences. All 3 came home breastfeeding. My 32wkr flat out hated the bottle and had a harder time with it. I mentioned it to the staff many times and finally I got the call to come nest nursing because should would never get home on a bottle. I had to push for and work really hard with my 27.5wkr. I kept getting told she couldn’t do it, that she was born so much earlier it would be the same. i couldn’t be there as often because I now had 2 little ones at home who also needed me, but we did it and she came home just breastfeeding, no supplementing because the bottle was ok for her but much more of a challenge than nursing. Our now 4mo old baby boy was born at 28 weeks and I was in a different hospital with a staff that was even more of a pain with the idea of breastfeeding let alone EBFing to go home. I settled for the goal of breastfeeding most of the time but I was able to only be there for one or 2 feedings a day and the bottles made it challenging, and that he as a boy and they kept saying boys are harder. I found a bottle that I wanted them to use that I thought would help him have a more consistent latch and required him to work a bit more like with BFing. It took a tremendous amount of work but Jacob cam home mostly breastfeeding and has done really well. It is hard. I know why most moms give up. I wanted to many times. I couldn’t imagine how hard it would be with 2 much earlier babies.

  2. Though Caleb was not a preemie, he was in the NICU for medical reasons. As a mom who had already successfully breastfed his two older sisters and was a previous milk donor, I was surprised at how hard it was to pump and to nurse in the NICU. The schedule is demanding and it feels like all NICU babies tire out easily- they are busy trying to get healthy and grow. Our NICU had curtains around each isolette and we would bring the nursing pillow, extra towels/pillows to help position him better after having surgery at 2 days old with a rocker not always available, clips to close the curtains, a nursing cover (as you were always interrupted), and my ipod to drown out all the beeping. The nurses would try to help when they could, but we found it was easier to bring our own things. The pumping was difficult too, though I had the luxury of a term baby and experience. Stress and lack of sleep takes its toll. It wasn’t until we were home that we finally found our groove but there were times that I thought we would never get to that point.

Speak Your Mind