Understanding Breastfeeding Challenges in NICUs

Understanding Breastfeeding Challenges in NICUs

Jan 17th 2024

The initiation of breastfeeding is an integral part of neonatal care, offering numerous health advantages for both mothers and infants. However, the setting of a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) can introduce a range of challenges to this natural process. Let’s dive into understanding breastfeeding challenges in NICUs and how providers can support these circumstances.

Challenges in NICU Breastfeeding

Premature birth, low birth weight, and various medical conditions can necessitate NICU admission. These factors can hinder both the initiation and maintenance of breastfeeding.

For example, preterm infants might not possess the strength or coordination necessary for effective suckling. Simultaneously, mothers may experience delayed lactation due to factors such as stress or medical complications. Aside from these challenges, below are two of the most significant hurdles to breastfeeding in the NICU.

Physical Separation Between Mother and Infant

One of the most significant challenges is the physical separation between mother and baby. The protocols within NICUs often restrict direct skin-to-skin contact, a practice known as kangaroo care. However, this skin-to-skin contact encourages bonding, stabilizes the infant’s heart rate and temperature, and stimulates milk production in the mother. The absence of this intimate contact can lead to reduced milk supply and emotional distress for the mother.

It’s worth noting that should kangaroo care be restricted, the NICU staff will do their best to ensure this opportunity becomes available as soon as possible.

Difficulty in Assessing Milk Intake

Unlike bottle-feeding, which is measurable via the bottle’s numeric gauge, breastfeeding is difficult to quantify. This uncertainty can lead to concerns about whether the infant is receiving adequate nutrition in the NICU. Furthermore, the need for supplemental nutrition via intravenous lines or feeding tubes can complicate breastfeeding efforts.

Addressing the Challenges: A Multidisciplinary Approach

Addressing these challenges requires a collaborative approach involving lactation consultants, neonatologists, nurses, dietitians, and mental health professionals. Care plans should be individualized, considering the unique circumstances of each mother-infant pair.

Promoting Early Initiation of Milk Expression

Encouraging mothers to start milk expression ideally within six hours of birth can enhance milk production. Even if the infant is unable to breastfeed directly, medical staff should encourage mothers to pump regularly to promote and maintain milk supply.

It’s also vital to educate mothers about the differences in their milk in the first week. They will produce colostrum the first several days and mature milk about one week (and beyond) postpartum. The mother can express both colostrum and mature milk so their newborn continues to receive this vital nutrient supply to assist in development.

Providing Education and Emotional Support

Education and emotional support are critical. NICU staff should offer clear explanations and practical demonstrations on breastfeeding techniques and milk expression.

Mental health support can also help mothers manage the emotional strain of having a newborn in the NICU. The need for support services is a vital component of understanding the challenges of breastfeeding in the NICU, as they help mothers feel less alone and more informed.

How Cascade Health Care Supports NICUs

While breastfeeding in the NICU presents unique challenges, they are not insurmountable. With comprehensive support and individualized care, facilities can optimize breastfeeding outcomes for these vulnerable mother-infant pairs. Cascade Health Care is committed to delivering superior quality care in the medical equipment supplier industry and offers a comprehensive selection of breast models for breastfeeding education services in all healthcare facilities. Start all your patients’ NICU journeys with a strong support system today!