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

The Roller Coaster of Breastfeeding in the NICU

Photo by: Jessie Threlkeld

When my daughter was born eight weeks early it was such a shock and surprise for my husband and me. I had always envisioned having a calm, peaceful birth and directly being able to breastfeed our daughter. That wasn’t our story.

Bree was whisked away by a NICU team while I had to stay and recover. My heart was racing as I imagined her being poked and prodded, desperate to see my little girl. The nurse looked over at me and said,” if you want to breastfeed, you’ll have to pump right away, should I go get you a pump?”

I looked puzzled, pump I thought. I wasn’t going to get to hold her and try first? “She’s not strong enough,” they responded. I put the two pumps on and the whooshing sound began; it was so uncomfortable and not at all how I imagined my breastfeeding journey would begin.

Twenty minutes later, the nurse came back to tell me I could stop.  I had a measly two drops in there. She smiled and said, “That’s great! We’ll try more in a few hours.” This went on for days, two drops every three hours. It was getting very discouraging, but the doctors and nurses told me to keep trying. Within a week my milk came in. Oh man did it come in — in overdrive! The doctors and nurses commented on how my supply was so amazing and we began freezing my milk. I felt like I could finally calm down and not worry about feeding my baby. I looked into donor milk and became a milk donor for other NICU babies.

After two months of this, it was time to start the next phase of the breastfeeding journey. The first time Bree latched there were doctors and nurses surrounding the two of us taking notes and making comments. My hope was that we would get Bree from tube feeding to breastfeeding. The doctors and nurses were very uncomfortable with this since it would be a challenge to measure how much Bree was getting at each feeding, but they enlightened me anyway. The first feeding went beautifully and I thought for sure that it would be smooth sailing.

But the feedings soon after were very difficult. Bree had trouble latching, and it was such a challenge. Our incredible lactation specialist helped every day. I had to use a nipple shield, and with her help and the shield, we were able to get a good, strong latch.  We often joked that I needed my shield as I raised my fist in the air like a superhero.  Humor is such good medicine for the NICU.  Little did I know just how important humor would need to be.

One month of breastfeeding successfully and we were sent home! But two days after being home, our little girl stopped breathing. I performed CPR while dialing 911, and we were airlifted back to the NICU, where everything changed. I tried breastfeeding in the NICU,  but my supply slowly dropped and eventually went away completely. I power pumped and prayed all night long.  Bree couldn’t handle formula, and so she had to be on breast milk. Her stomach would get really constipated with formula. Her constipation would often result in her needing oxygen support from trying to push so much. This went on for days as I power pumped and kept watching her little body turn purple again and need more oxygen. Our lactation consultant was such an amazing woman as I cried that my milk was gone and that we had to find a way to bring it back. Thankfully there are many ways for women to get milk supply up, back, and even re-lactate!

This is what I want to encourage you with. Since that time I have had my supply drop and even disappear twice! Both times I have managed to get it back. It does require work, commitment, and patience, but if your heart is set on breastfeeding your baby, here are some tips that can help you.

  1. Find support. For me our doctors weren’t very supportive of my decision to only breastfeed our daughter, but my husband and lactation consultant were!  Especially for moms that want to breastfeed instead of pump, this tip is crucial. It takes time to latch and usually a professional to help. Seek out a lactation consultant if this is something that you wish to do.
  2. Eat and drink regularly. This was my problem in the NICU; I was so stressed and didn’t want to leave Bree to grab a bite. Trust me it will be good for you and your little one if you get a break every now and then.
  3. Drink every time you nurse. I would fill up my water bottle and drink 12 oz every time I nursed – this helps a lot.
  4. De-Stress. Stress is the number one reason why women’s milk supply drops or disappears. The NICU is a very stressful environment. I made a goal to walk around outside for 10 minutes every day and breathe. I journaled and found funny shows to watch on Hulu. Take a few minutes every day for YOU!
  5.  Humor. Humor is a great way to release stress. Find a nurse that you connect with, a friend, or a spouse, and find something to laugh at.
  6. Supplement. If all else fails, supplement your diet with lactation teas; fennel was a great booster for me. And always talk to your lactation specialist to see what other supplements may help.
  7. And as always pump, pump, pump! It will be worth it in the end! I seriously hated my breast pump when I was round-the-clock pumping, but am so thankful for it now.  Make it fun by listening to calming music, watching a funny show, or reading a good book. The hardest time to pump is in the middle of the night, but if it is something that you can commit to, it will make a huge difference in keeping your supply going. Every three hours is a great way to keep track of when you pumped last.

The breastfeeding journey is a personal one that for some is smooth sailing, for others takes an abrupt halt, and for many of us has twists and turns with many bumps along the way, but in the end is one of the greatest joys.

For those of you looking for further support, here are some great resources that have helped me whether I had oversupply, undersupply, no supply, or when I was just looking for some encouragement. My daughter is 14 months now and still breastfeeding like a champ!




Jessie Threlkeld About Jessie Threlkeld

Jessie Threlkeld is mother to Breanna, a former 32 weeker. Jessie's uneventful pregnancy came to a screeching halt due to unexplained PPROM. Due to breathing and eating complications Bree had a much longer NICU stay than anticipated with a total of three discharges from the NICU. The two struggled through the ups and downs of breastfeeding, performing CPR and learning the ropes of bringing a preemie home. Jess and her husband Nate have made it their passion to encourage and support preemie parents, and find ways to help those that want to breastfeed. Jessie is passionate about encouraging NICU moms through their journey, as well as, finding natural solutions for common preemie issues. Check out her blog for tips on surviving in the NICU and beyond.


  1. so glad to read this great article
    i was able to nurse 13 mos the first baby and 24 mos the 2nd baby so thankful they are so healthy and no breathing problems
    keep up on writing great articles Jessie!!!!!
    God Bless your day

  2. My baby boy was born at 35 weeks and was a forcep delivery as he was stuck, I briefly saw my little bruiser with his swollen black eyes and purple lips before he was taken to NICU. I was insistant that I wanted to breastfeed. So the nurse explained how to use the pump and got me started. A drop is all that seemed to come out each time and this went on for about 10 days then finally the milk came in it was just a bit. My son was also tube fed but not till he was about 4 days old as he was intubated shortly after he was born which is heart wrenching to see them scream and no sound comes out. He was 4 days old the first time I held him. Since I wasn’t producing enough milk he was given what I pumped then topped up with formula. He didn’t seem to digest the formula as well and would vomit. I took herbs and pumped every three hours for the entire 26 days we spent in NICU. I also was very lucky to have excellent nurses, doctors and a lactation consultant that were a huge help. My husband and I didn’t want to bottle feed our baby but going from tube feed to breastfeeding was a struggle until we tried to bottle feed him the milk I would pump it taught him he had to suck to get food and since I used a nipple shield there was no problem with him accepting a bottle and still trying to nurse him. After having bottles introduced we were able to go home with him nursing then being topped up with a bottle of breast milk. I did that at home for about a month then exclusively nursed. What they don’t tell you about pumping is that you at first will produce way more then your baby needs so even if your not pumping and giving the baby a bottle you will have to slowly cut back on pumping until you are still comfortable after the baby has nursed because you don’t want the supply to stop but you don’t want to pump all the time either it’s a bit tricky but be patient and give you and the baby time to adjust. Also take time to leave the hospital for a meal or just a drive around to help keep you sane. I stayed in the city with our baby and my husband would come in for 4 day weekends as we lived two hours away.

  3. Great article! I also had a premie baby, 12 weeks earlier. I was able to breastfeed him for 12 months. It was very important all the information and support I had from the nurses and doctors at Addenbrookes hospital but most of all, persistence is the key! I know it can be frustrating and exhausting but very much worthy! He is now 9, a healthy and happy child. When he was in NICU I felt I couldn’t do anything for him but pump and touch him, show I was there and loved him . I feel I did a great job and with this I made such a difference in his progress. I gave him a great start in life! Thanks be to God !

  4. This took me back to the NICU days. My baby was born at 32 wks. 🙂 is tough, but is so worth every pump and sleepless night. He was able to go home on an oxygen tank, but I can imagine the horror!

  5. I’m so glad that you had the support! I also went through a similar struggle. My son was born at 36 wks and 5 days. However, not all of the NICU nurses were supportive of my choice to breastfeed. My son had to stay in the NICU for 2 weeks due to having apnea. It was a struggle and a rough start, but by seeking help and support from a lactation specialist, I was able to nurse my son for 13 months!


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