My top tips for expressing on the neonatal unit – Elizabeth’s story

Elizabeth 4

Elizabeth had her heart set on breastfeeding. When Paisley arrived early, these plans changed and she had to learn to express milk instead.

In this blog, Elizabeth shares the lessons she learnt from the experience of expressing. If you are expressing or breastfeeding you might find some of these tips handy but remember to always seek support and advice from a healthcare professional if you need it.

1. Try to adjust to the idea that breastfeeding might not be the way you imagined it at first

Having a baby in the NICU can be the hardest and most stressful time of your life. If you had your heart set on breastfeeding and your baby comes early or is unwell, you might not be able to start straight away – if at all. This can be a difficult mental adjustment to make. If you are able to supply breast milk, you might be handed a machine to get pumping.

It isn’t what you had planned but remember you’ve decided this is how you want to feed your baby, and you can do this! It can feel hard to know how to get involved in your baby’s care but if you’re able to produce milk, that’s a great way to feel more involved.

2. Ask your partner for support

If you have a partner, they might think that feeding is an area of care they can’t support you with but that isn’t true. Partners can be involved: whether it is simply keeping you company as you express, making cups of tea and getting you whatever food you’re craving or getting up for the night feeds if you are both staying in hospital accommodation.

Partners can also be a great pillar of emotional support. Expressing isn’t always easy – especially in those early days – talk to them about what is going on and ask them to support you in the way that you need.

3. Entertainment can help for the lonely night feeds

Waking up to an expressing machine throughout the night can seem lonely and trying. Pumping for a machine is a very different experience than having a baby cuddled into you and it can provoke a range of emotions from sadness to boredom. Record or download your very favourite TV programme that you know you can watch again and again and sit and enjoy it in the peace and quiet. If TV is not your thing, you could also try dusting off your favourite book.

Elizabeth, a baby, being held with gloves near incubator

4. Don’t forget to practice self-care

At this moment in time the last thing you will be thinking of is yourself. But don’t forget - you and your partner are the most important thing to your baby and you need to be as healthy as possible to take the best care of them. Try and get some rest in between hospital visits, eat healthily and have some “me time”. Even if it’s sitting and having a cup of coffee with a partner or friend; never feel guilty for looking after yourself too.

5. Try and normalise the experience of expressing as much as possible

Get your family and close circle used to the idea that you will be expressing milk. I personally found that becoming comfortable doing this around them helped me feel more supported.

6. Don’t be discouraged if your milk supply is low

Milk supply can be small at first – especially if your baby was born early. If you are worried, the healthcare professionals are there to help, so make sure you ask lots of questions.

It will vary between all mums, but I found things were easier when I had some rest, ate something right before I expressed and drank plenty of water throughout the day. Also, once I was able to spend lots of time with my doing baby skin-to-skin, my milk supply became much more plentiful.

Elizabeth, a baby being held on lap in hospital

7. Remember that feeding practices can change between levels of care

When my baby was moved into SCBU, I was finally able to try breastfeeding without an expressing machine. Remember to be patient, it’s a new way of feeding and your baby may need time to get used to it. For me, this was one of the most rewarding parts of the journey to breastfeeding. I savour this precious memory as the moment where my hard work felt worth it.

8. Be proud of your breastfeeding journey – no matter its length

Most mums who breastfeed – whether they’ve had a healthy baby and went straight home or spent time in neonatal care – can agree that it can be a tricky and frustrating business. Whether you expressed or nursed for a matter of days, or for years, be proud of what you managed to achieve. We all have our own circumstances, bodies and journeys to consider – congratulations on all the accomplishments you made on yours!

Elizabeth smiles happily now