breastfeeding in NICUDespite smaller patient numbers and secluded environments, neonatal intensive care units (NICU) are not the best places for breastfeeding mothers, according to a new study from researchers at the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing. The study, published in Advances in Neonatal Care, reports mothers of infants in NICU environments often give up the idea of breastfeeding by the time baby leaves the hospital.

Researchers followed 40 women who had recently given birth. Fifteen of the infants were placed in NICU while the remaining 25 infants were placed in single rooms. Researchers expected that NICU moms would feel more comfortable breastfeeding due to the secluded environment, but they were wrong. According to mothers of NICU patients, anxiety and lack of privacy wreaked havoc on their attempts to breastfeed.

It is important for new mothers to express breast milk or breastfeed every couple of hours during the first few weeks of life. After the initial breastfeeding period, breastfeeding or breast milk expression needs to continue up to eight times a day to maintain a steady milk supply. Of the 75% of women who chose to breastfeed before giving birth, only 45% actually breastfed after leaving the hospital.

Mothers claimed they felt anxiety about missing doctor’s rounds or that they felt uncomfortable breastfeeding around doctors completing rounds. While NICUs often have on-staff pediatricians, doctors and nurses, family pediatricians and other doctors come and go as needed for patient care. This means a high level of traffic is a smaller area, which could contribute to the lack of privacy reported by mothers of infants in the NICU.  Though privacy was a major concern, it wasn’t the only concern. Infants admitted to the NICU are often required to stay in the hospital longer than healthy infants. Not all mothers were able to keep up with family and home responsibilities while meeting the breastfeeding needs of their infant.

Researchers noted the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests breastfeeding for the first six months, exclusively. This study suggests an important gap in privacy and education for mothers of NICU patients that could prevent breastfeeding in patients who would benefit from breast milk most.

Source: Donna A. Dowling, Mary Ann Blatz, Gregory Graham. Mothersʼ Experiences Expressing Breast Milk for Their Preterm Infants. Advances in Neonatal Care, 2012; 12 (6): 377 DOI: 10.1097/ANC.0b013e318265b299