The Emotional Side of Breastfeeding Preemies

One night while watching TV, my husband cracked a joke and I started laughing. Being 34 weeks pregnant, I wet my pants. As I went to the bathroom to take care of the situation, I noticed the pee wasn’t stopping. I assumed it was just a leaking issue (I thought I had heard of that being a pregnancy symptom). After putting on a pad and returning to the couch for more of the show, I soon found my pad and pants soaked through and the couch even a little wet. Hmmm. Maybe that wasn’t pee. I was in complete denial that this could possibly mean early labor and decided to just ignore it all. One of my best friends whose due date was the day after mine had delivered her baby at 30 weeks. I knew what she was going through and denied the possibility of it happening to me. My preemie was born sixteen hours later.

While I still was able to deliver Burkley completely naturally, gone were my hopes, dreams, and plans of bringing my new little slimy, wriggly baby right up to my chest for some of that long awaited skin-to-skin bonding and breastfeeding whenever and however much he wanted. Instead, he was whisked away from me and taken to the NICU while I sat in recovery getting a little episiotomy stitched without a baby and without my husband, who had gone with our son. My doula stayed with me, and after a couple of hours of waiting and visiting with family, I got to go see my son.

Later that night, my doula said to me, “you should go pump.”

And thus began my NICU pumping/breastfeeding adventure. I learned a lot during this time and hope to offer some information for anyone else who might find they are in a similar situation.

I really do believe that choosing to breastfeed your child takes determination and a quality support system. So many moms hit roadblocks and Booby Traps and find that breastfeeding is causing more stress than bonding and more pain than pleasure; consequently, they decide it is in their best interests to stop.

Articles have been written regarding pumping, supplementing, and breastfeeding your premature baby, and those resources are wonderful, helpful tools. I know I spent many hours on Kellymom in our early weeks reading up on all I could to make sure my supply would build adequately and my preemie would eventually be able to latch on all by himself (which he eventually did without a shield at 6 weeks old), but nothing could prepare me for the emotional component of breastfeeding a preemie. Two of the things that helped me the most emotionally were determination and a strong support system.


If I had not pre-determined during my pregnancy that I would, no ifs-and-or-buts about it, nurse my baby, I’m not sure if I would have been able to deal with nursing a preemie. I had done my research and was doggedly determined to wow the naysayers in my life and prove to them that nursing can be successful and wonderful. I know other moms whose babies surprised their families and friends by coming far earlier than mine. Moms of breastfed preemies all have the determination and stubbornness needed to buck a system telling you that the baby needs “more” to grow healthily. Endless hours are spent pumping, washing pump parts, feeding through NG tubes, using a supplementary nursing system (SNS) or lactation aid, nursing with nipple shields, or any other array of supplies and tools to help a weary mom get the job done. Why would people put themselves through all that effort?

Some moms of preemies find that if they want their babies to have breastmilk, it will only happen through exclusively pumping. This can be an extremely taxing experience. The rhythmic sound of the pump becomes as commonplace as one’s own breathing for these moms, and being hooked up to a machine can leave one feeling lonely and empty. It is especially difficult if your baby is in the NICU and you are at home, dutifully pumping while taking care of household duties, possibly other children, and dealing with other responsibilities. Leaving your baby in the NICU while you go to do anything can cause an overpowering feeling of guilt in a new mom. Visitors come and go and the adrenaline that’s keeping you awake and motivated can fade after the few days, weeks, or even months that some babies have to stay in the NICU. It can be devastating for a breastfeeding relationship when you’re separated from your baby by an incubator, wires, feeding tubes, oxygen supplies, and monitors.

Cheryl Morrissette, a NICU nurse in Fredericksburg, Virginia, writes that getting your preemie’s breastfeeding journey off to a good start often means pumping “early, often, and well.” Exclusive pumpers are driven by a force bigger than themselves. Hooking themselves up to that machine is empowering, as moms know that it is by this machine that their own breastmilk will get to their preemie, helping their baby grow strong and healthy faster and with more success than any other form of nutrition. And that’s why they put themselves through it: for their babies, for their own health as mothers, and for the emotional well-being of their mother-baby relationship. It takes determination, but it is all worth it.

Support System

While I was in the NICU, I saw several other families dealing with their own trials of having a preemie, but for the most part, everyone was cheerful and kind, and every room was bustling with visitors. However, there was one teen mom I noticed who often sat alone, gazing at her twin babies with a scared, forlorn look on her face. Once in awhile I’d see another young teen girl with her, maybe a friend, sister, or cousin- but mostly she sat alone. Not only did this young woman have twins, they were premature, and she appeared to not have a strong support system. I wonder how her breastfeeding journey went.

A quality support system is an integral part of any breastfeeding experience, but having that support for your preemie is really necessary. Some moms on the Facebook forum Breastmilk for Preemies shared with me that one of the best ways their spouses, family members, and friends showed support was by helping to clean and reassemble the pump — every single time. Bringing the nursing mother water and a snack was another way these support people helped encourage the moms to keep going. For me personally, the support of the NICU staff consistently encouraging me and congratulating me each time I’d bring in bottles of pumped milk really helped me stay motivated. Once we were home, my husband would wake up with me in the night and help hold Burkley’s arms (he’s a flailer!) while we both worked to get him latched on. Supportive family and friends are so important in those early days to help you feel comfortable and respected if you need to get comfortable nursing around them, or if you need to leave an event or a room, prop up some pillows, and enjoy some alone time with your nursing preemie.

Finding a support group like La Leche League or a preemie/NICU support group is also beneficial. It’s so helpful to be able to talk with people and share experiences with those who understand your trials and efforts. Finding an excellent lactation consultant who is willing to join you on your journey, even if it’s a long and bumpy one, is another quite helpful resource. An online forum and support network is one way we parents of preemies can connect that parents even a generation ago did not have. Groups like Preemie Parenting, Breastmilk for Preemies, Natural Parents Network (the forum or the Facebook communities), and La Leche League forums are just some of the online communities already in place out there in cyberspace.

While our beginning was not as easy as it is for some, many moms of preemies have it much harder than we did. Even with a challenge at the start, I’m so thankful we are happily traveling on the breastfeeding road, living in the moment and enjoying every turn.


Adrienne is a first time mom to her mellow sweetie-pie, Burkley. Carrying her natural lifestyle over into her role of mother was a common-sense transition for this former elementary school teacher turned crunchy-mama. Research is her passion and her friends and family know that she is almost always ready with a stash of resources bookmarked to answer any of their natural parenting questions. While she admits to being on the computer more than she should be, she has been happily adjusting to her new life as a stay-at-home mom after moving back home to the Quad Cities (along the Mississippi River) from Chicago, by spending time with her family and newly found mom-friends. She is currently saving up money to become a certified postpartum doula. You can find Adrienne at Mommying My Way.

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