Pumping in the NICU: Liquid Gold or Liquid Guilt?


Two hours after my son was born, a lactation consultant knocked on my hospital room door. She peeked her head in and asked “Are you going to breastfeed?”

I stared at her, trying to process the question. I had just delivered my baby four months before his due date and my tiny one-pound son was rushed to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) before I could even see him. I was in shock.

“Well,” I stumbled, wondering how a baby that small would even be able to eat. “I’m not sure yet.”

She pushed the door wide open and stood with her hands on her hips. “You do know that giving breast milk is the only thing you can do for your baby now, right?” she said, “It’s liquid GOLD!”

Whoa – that’s a lot of pressure! I started pumping as soon as she wheeled the hospital-grade breast pump into my room. It felt weird. Nothing happened. Nurses told me it could take a few days for my milk to come in.

I tried pumping next to my preemie’s isolette in the NICU. He stopped breathing and turned blue. Nurses rushed to get his heart rate and oxygen levels back up. Tears ran down my face as I stumbled out of the way trying to cover myself so my boobs weren’t hanging out for all to see. I spilled what little milk I had pumped in the process. That was the last time I pumped bedside.

The hospital had a pumping room with a curtain and two old chairs. The clock ticked so loud, I could hear it over the “chugga-chugga” of the breast pump. There was one ugly painting on the wall, dingy from years of neglect. I left my baby’s bedside every two hours to stare at that painting because I had started to get milk.

When my son was two days old, they gave him the first of my breast milk through his feeding tube. As soon as I saw that my pumping efforts were going to pay off, it made the ugly pumping room look a little prettier – I was doing something for my preemie.

I usually produced 1/2 ounce of milk at a time. On good days, I would get almost a whole ounce. I thought that was pretty good until I saw the other moms leaving the pumping room with huge bottles full of 5 or 6 ounces.

Uh oh.

I started taking herbal supplements touted to increase milk supply. They helped, but not enough.

I took a prescription medication with a side effect of increased breast milk production. Other side effects included uncontrolled muscle spasms, inability to keep still, and Parkinson’s-like symptoms. OK – that didn’t work.

My son ate so little at first, I started gathering a stockpile of milk in the freezer. I was so proud! Until he started eating an ounce at a time and then two ounces. My freezer supply dwindled.

But damn it! I was going to get my son his liquid gold!

I kept thinking about what the lactation consultant said that first day “It’s the only thing you can do for your baby.” I was failing him. Again. First, I couldn’t keep him in; then I couldn’t feed him. Guilt is a bitch.

I was miserable. I spent at least 5 hours a day hooked up to a machine. I did “power pumping” where I pumped for 10 minutes every 20 minutes for 2 hours. I read every book and research article that I could find about increasing milk supply. I spent hours with the lactation consultants trying new techniques. I said I wanted to quit….they said, hang in there, you can do it!

But, I couldn’t.

My body would not cooperate. I was stressed out and in pain. (I’m sure that did not help.) I was so guilty. All of the posters in the hospital told me day in and day out that “Breast Milk Is Best!” But, there were no posters that said “Pumping Milk for a Preemie Might Not Work – It’s Not Your Fault!”

My son quickly out-ate my supply. The only option left was formula. Thankfully, my preemie did well with the transition from breast milk to formula.

Even though pumping breast milk was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, I’m glad that I stuck with it for as long as I did. I was able to give my son breast milk, even if it was only a tiny bit. I appreciate the lactation consultants who were there to keep me motivated when I wanted to quit. But I wish there was more support for those of us who are physically unable to continue breastfeeding or pumping.

I’m not encouraging anyone to stop pumping. If you are, and it’s working, please keep going! You are doing an amazing thing for your baby. But, if you’re like me and pumping is becoming a source of pain and stress and it’s just not working even though you’ve tried everything…it’s ok to stop. We can let go of the guilt together.

Maybe I’ll make a new poster for the walls: “Breast milk is liquid gold, but formula is golden, too.”

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Pumping in the NICU: Liquid Gold or Liquid Guilt?

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  • Pumping is HARD! When my third child was in the NICU and I was recovering from my emergency c-section I had a two hour window to visit the NICU and try to bottle feed him, get back up to my hospital room, pump, and get back down to the NICU. Every two hours. I’d exclusively nursed my older two, so I knew that if I could get through that awful cycle it would be worth it. But if I hadn’t already breastfed? I don’t think I’d have done it, especially after they started adding formula to the breastmilk over my objections.

    Some of those moms who are coming in with full bottles? It may be because they’ve already nursed. When my fourth was born, I’d only weaned his brother a few months earlier. By the time he was ready to come home, I’m pretty sure I was producing enough milk for the who NICU and dumping half of it down the sink because that was easier than finding extra bottles.

    I think moms who pump long term deserve trophies. As pro-breastfeeding as I am, I doubt I could’ve made it for more than a couple of months if we hadn’t been able to successfully transition from bottle to breast.

  • This is the most supportive message I’ve been able to find regarding the decision to stop pumping. My son was born at 28 weeks weighing 1lb 12oz. I started pumping in the recovering room after my c section before seeing my son for the first time. We just brought him home from the hospital a little over a week ago after being there for 92 days. I pumped every 2 hours during the day and every 3 at night for the first 2 months and every 3 hours the last month. I pumped through pain that felt like there were needles going into my nipples and after creams and medicines finally found out that I have vasospams. I finally found medication that helped a little but I’m still in pain. I’ve had a low supply the entire time but was able to provide enough to feed my son through his NICU experience and have some frozen. Pumping felt like something I could do for my son when I felt as though my body failed me in carrying him to term. Now that he is home I feel even more stress when I need to pump and my supply dropped even lower if that was possible. When I want to just enjoy my son I need to get him situated so that I can pump. I know that I provided him milk when his tiny tummy needed it most but I need to make sure I’m ok so I can be a good mom. My husband and I made the decision together that it it best that I stop so that I can take care of him and myself. I’ve been scaling back the amount times I pump a day and have a sick feeling in my stomach for when I’m finally finished. The guilt takes over. This posting gave me the final push to say that it is ok for me to stop. Thank you for helping me take care of myself and my family.

  • My first was born 6 weeks early and as soon as she was born I was asked if I was going to breastfeed I said yes, as I was told Brest is best. I was pumping every 3 hours and at first was getting a good amount of milk but by the time she came home I wasn’t getting much. So we started to mix feed the hole time I was doing everything in my power to increase my supply but it wasn’t working, I was stressed out and not enjoying my baby and by the time she was 16 weeks my husband said to me it is ok to stop breastfeeding you have done the best you can but I think you would be better off if you stopped. So we stopped, I think I just needed to hear from someone that it is ok to not breastfeed.
    I have now had baby number 2 and I tried breastfeeding again and it was going great until I went back to work and my supply is dropping off, but this time we are 8 months in and I know that if I have to stop it is ok.

  • I am in a premmie group, and was tagged asking me to read your story.
    My son was born at 31 weeks, and I haven’t had a good milk supply. I pump every 2 hours around the clock. I’m lucky if I get an ounce out of both breasts. I have a notification on my phone that goes off telling me it’s time to pump, and each time it goes off I nearly break down.
    I have a huge amount of guilt. My body couldn’t keep him in, and safe…and now I can’t even make the milk he needs.
    God forbid anyone asks how a pump session went….
    I have 3 older kiddos at home too, so trying to juggle them, their school work, house work, hours at the nicu, and pumping…omg.
    I’m not ready to quit yet…but I am so glad that I’m not alone, because it definitely felt like I was.
    Thanks again.

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