My Experience Breastfeeding in the NICU with Low Milk Supply

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I always wanted to breastfeed.

It was something I’d always pictured doing when dreaming about being a mom. It seemed like such a sweet thing – a calm, snugly way to bond with your baby. And of course I wanted my babies to have all the wonderful benefits of breast milk!

 

breastfeeding nicu baby low milk supply | sunshineandholly.com

Graham was born 4 weeks early. I was certain I was going to have a 10lb, 2-week late baby, so you can imagine our surprise when he came so early, weighing in at just 6lbs 2oz. My labor and birth went smoothly – everything worked the way it was supposed to.

graham's birth breastfeeding low milk supply nicu | sunshineandholly.com

I was able to hold Graham for about 5 minutes after he was born, and then he was whisked off to the NICU so they could monitor his breathing. I didn’t get to hold him again or try to feed him for almost 12 hours. A lactation consultant was sent to my recovery room soon after the birth to show me how to pump. I really hadn’t thought much about pumping – I thought I’d have plenty of time to figure that out once my maternity leave came to an end. I started pumping that day every 3 hours…little did I know that I would be chained to that pump for a lot longer than I ever expected.

baby feeding tube breastfeeding low milk supply nicu | sunshineandholly.com

Once I was finally able to try to feed Graham – I was so optimistic. He latched on right away and seemed to be eating. We worked and worked and worked at breastfeeding while we were at the hospital. Josh and I went to the NICU for every feeding (every 3 hours) the first few days. And I was still pumping every 3 hours, too.

breastfeeding low milk supply nicu | sunshineandholly.com

We were told Graham was a “lazy eater” and wasn’t actively sucking during feedings, even with a bottle. One nurse said he had “wimpy white boy syndrome.” (Statistically, white males do the worst in the NICU. They just take longer to develop.) So after I breastfed, they would feed him formula through a feeding tube. I was discharged from the hospital after a couple of days, but we had to leave Graham behind. They wouldn’t let him leave until he could eat 12 full bottles in a row. Leaving him there was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  

breastfeeding low milk supply nicu | sunshineandholly.com

Every day we would drive over to the hospital in the morning in Atlanta’s rush hour traffic. We would stay in the NICU all day until around 11:30pm, when we finally drove home. And I was still pumping. We had 5 consultations with 3 different lactation consultants that first week. But my milk never fully came in. I’m not sure if it was the fact that I wasn’t able to feed Graham right after he was born, or the fact that he was a “lazy eater.” Maybe my body didn’t respond well to the pump? But the most I ever made was an ounce total each time I fed Graham or pumped. The NICU had a fridge for moms to store their pumped milk. I always felt defeated when I compared my drops of milk to other moms’ full bottles in the fridge.

breastfeeding low milk supply nicu pumped breastmilk | sunshineandholly.com

This was all of the milk COMBINED that I pumped that first week. A whole weeks worth of milk in one tiny vial.

 

skin to skin breastfeeding low milk supply nicu | sunshineandholly.com

Graham was discharged a week after he was born. Such a happy day! Earlier that week, when I was discharged, I rode in the wheelchair with my purse in my lap instead of my baby, crying because I had to leave Graham behind in the NICU. But the day Graham was discharged, I finally got to be one of the moms I kept seeing leaving the hospital – riding in a wheelchair out to the car with a brand-new sweet baby. One of the best moments ever!

breastfeeding low milk supply nicu graham going home | sunshineandholly.com

welcome home sign breastfeeding low milk supply nicu | sunshineandholly.com

At this point, I was still pretty optimistic about breastfeeding, and thought I would eventually make enough milk. We tried so many different things that first month. I was still pumping for 15 minutes after each feeding, every 3 hours. Our routine looked a little like this: I would try to breastfeed for about 20 minutes, then feed Graham a bottle (which took about 20 minutes), and then pump for about 15-20 minutes. So I was feeding/pumping for almost an hour, every 3 hours…even at night. It. Was. Exhausting.

breastfeeding low milk supply nicu | sunshineandholly.com

I tried eating tons of oatmeal, which is supposed to increase your milk supply. I took fenugreek and blessed thistle and drank mother’s milk tea. We met with one last lactation consultant and she suggested trying a heating pad on my chest, taking hot showers and doing some breast massage. (Which Josh was more than happy to help with – ha!) We also tried an Supplemental Nursing System for about a week, which is basically a bottle with a tube that you tape to your nipple. As the baby breastfeeds, they are also fed with formula or expressed milk from the tube.

low milk supply supplemental nursing system nicu baby breastfeeding | sunshineandholly.com

I even ended up taking Reglan for a month – a prescription drug for gastrointestinal problems that can increase your milk supply, despite all the scary side effects. (Reglan can cause a permanent condition called tardive dyskinesia, which can cause unusual uncontrolled movements of the face, mouth, tongue, arms or legs, similar to Parkinson’s Disease.) Yikes! And even after all of that, I was still only able to produce one ounce.

That first month was awful. Since it took so long to feed Graham, I felt like I couldn’t go anywhere. I was so lonely and exhausted. I was dealing with the emotions of being a new mom. I was getting used to being home all day, alone, after working in a busy, talkative office. I was worrying about going back to work. And to top it all off, I finally figured out I was suffering with postpartum depression.

After that miserable first month, I decided to come to terms with the fact that one ounce was all I could make. I accepted it and finally put my pump away. But I still wanted Graham to get what little milk I made. So I continued to breastfeed him each time he was ready to eat. Then, right after, I supplemented with a bottle of formula. It still took a little bit more time, but the extra 20 minutes was worth the extra nutrients he was receiving.  

And I LOVED breastfeeding. That bonding time that we shared was so special to me. I loved looking down at Graham while he ate. Especially once he got a bit older and started to look back up at me. And those sleepy smiles while nursing – so sweet!

So that was our normal. It worked perfectly for about 5 months. After that, Graham decided he wasn’t patient enough to breastfeed first and then have his bottle. I continued to try for about a week until I realized he just wasn’t going to have it anymore. I got back out my pump and pumped my ounce for Graham every three hours until he turned 6 months old. I was also blessed with a wonderful friend who donated some of her milk to Graham.

I wish I knew exactly why I never produced enough milk. I also wish there was more information out there about having an early baby or a baby in the NICU. I was so unprepared for that situation.

New moms – please know that your hormones and emotions will be so out of whack when your baby arrives. I was in such a depressed state and although some of it was from the postpartum depression, I know a lot of it came from being so obsessed with trying to make breastfeeding work. I was scared I was going to feel like that forever. But it does pass. And your hormones will even out and you will feel normal again.

I wish we didn’t put so much pressure on new moms to breastfeed. Formula is just fine and you aren’t a failure if it doesn’t work out.

I’m so thankful I was able to experience breastfeeding Graham. And so blessed that my amazing husband was completely supportive during the whole experience.

We have millions of pictures and videos of our sweet nursing sessions that I will cherish forever. Graham was such an amazing baby and I’m so glad I was able to provide milk for him, even if we had to supplement.

breastfeeding low milk supply nicu newborn photography | sunshineandholly.com

breastfeeding nicu baby low milk supply | sunshineandholly.com

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6 Replies to “My Experience Breastfeeding in the NICU with Low Milk Supply”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your story! I know so many moms out there will be comforted to know they are not alone in that type of situations. You are one tough mama for sticking it out and being so dedicated- and for making the right decisions for you and your baby when needed!

    1. Thanks Mary! I was super upset at the time that it all didn’t work out the way I wanted. But now, 4.5 years later – I’m proud of what I did accomplish. 🙂

  2. This was so comforting to read! Nursing is my biggest fear right now, because I don’t know if I’ll be able to breastfeed successfully. Everyone seems to have such different experiences and it’s nice to have people like you that are so open with their story and true feelings throughout the process. I hope I’m able to breastfeed, but know that formula is a perfectly normal option if I can’t make it work!

    1. Stefani – I hope breastfeeding goes smoothly for you! And you are completely right – if breastfeeding doesn’t work out, formula is fine and don’t let anyone shame you if that’s what you choose!

  3. I’m finally catching up on your posts and this one brought me to tears! Thanks for sharing your experience and I agree with all your points that it’s different for everyone and the best thing to do is learn from other moms’ experiences and expect the unexpected. I too had to “nurse” her in the Special Care nursery every theee hours, feed her a bottle because I didn’t have much milk yet, then return to my room to pump and repeat for 3 days. It was the toughest experience for which i was not prepared. You just never know but I’m sure you are so proud of what you accomplished!

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