Pumping in the NICU: Liquid Gold or Liquid Guilt?

Two hours after Jax was born, I was visited by a lactation consultant in my hospital room. She asked if I planned to breastfeed. What?!

I hadn’t even seen my tiny 1 1/2 pound baby yet. I’ll admit, the first thing through my mind at that moment was…what good would it do? I told her that I wasn’t sure yet. She gave me the “look,” she said “You do know that giving breast milk is the only thing you can do for your baby now, right? It’s liquid GOLD!” breastfeeding anthology square ad

Whoa – talk about pressure.

I started pumping the next morning. It felt weird. Nothing happened. They told me it could take a few days for my milk to come in.

I got into a schedule – I pumped for 20 minutes every 2 – 3 hours.

I tried pumping next to Jax’s bed side. He had a spell and turned blue. Nurses were rushing to get his heart rate and oxygen levels back up. My boobs were hanging out for all to see. That was the last time I pumped bedside while in the pod at St Cloud.

They had a pumping room with a curtain and two old chairs. There was one ugly painting on the wall. The clock ticked so loud, I could hear it over the “chugga-chugga” of the breast pump. But I had started to get milk! And when Jax was only a couple of days old, they gave him the first of my breast milk through his ng tube. It was only about 2ccs, but he tolerated it! As soon as I saw that all my pumping efforts were going to pay off, it made the ugly pumping room look a little prettier – I was actually doing something for Jax.

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.

So, I started taking fenugreek and Mother’s Love Plus capsules, which were herbal supplements known to help increase milk supply. They helped, but not enough.

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

Soon, Jax was up to 1ml of breast milk, then 5mls. He was eating like a champ!

He ate so little at first, I was starting to gather a little stockpile of milk that I kept in the freezer. I was so proud!

Until he started eating an ounce at a time…and then 2 ounces…

And my freezer supply was dwindling.

And then I started getting sharp, stabbing pains that started in my breasts and went up my neck and chin to my cheeks or down to my stomach. I was diagnosed with Reynaud’s Phenomenon which caused extreme pain during pumping. I tried the prescription medication, Nifedipine (which is a high blood pressure medication) to help reduce the constriction in my veins. The medication made me extremely dizzy, I almost passed out more than once.

But, damn it! I was going to get Jax 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. (Are you seeing a common theme here?)

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 just 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!”

Jax quickly out-ate my supply.

Jax was 2 1/2 months old and didn’t qualify for donor milk because he was too old. The only option we had was formula. Oh – GOD, don’t you know that formula is NOT as good as breast milk?! (At least, that was according to the posters on the walls.)first import 151

And he got formula…and he didn’t get sick. He didn’t die. Bill Gates was a formula-fed baby. (I don’t know if that’s actually true, but one of our nurses told me that, and it made me feel better!)

And then dad could start feeding him, too!

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 those 2 1/2 months. I’m glad I had the lactation consultants there to keep me motivated when I wanted to quit. But, I just wish there was more support for us formula-feeders.

I’m not encouraging any one 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 for you 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 really is liquid gold, but formula is ok, too.


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Author: Andrea M

Oh man, what an adventure! I went into labor unexpectedly when I was 23w3d pregnant. Jaxson was born weighing 1 lb 8 oz. A tiny little peanut, but boy was he feisty. He still is! We love it now, but we probably won't when he is a teenager. I write about our journey and all other things that come with it, including a brain tumor. We look forward to "meeting" you - come hang out with us...we're pretty cool.

40 thoughts on “Pumping in the NICU: Liquid Gold or Liquid Guilt?”

  1. I really just want to say thank you..my son, Ian was born three weeks ago at 32wks 2 days at 2 lb 7 oz after an emergency c-section due to severe pre-eclampsia and HELLP syndrome. I am so lucky that he never needed oxygen and only was jaundiced for about a week. He now weighs 3lb 6 oz, and everything Is looking good. I too was instantly barraged by the LC at the hospital to start pumping. I’ve really tried, but the more I pump, the more depressed I get. Partially because I am only getting one session a day where I get 0.5 oz and the rest of the day I barely get 10 ml and my son is getting 29ml every feed. I also got scolded by the LC because I was pumping and dumping per my doctors instructions due to an antibiotic I was on. She said it doesn’t matter what my doctor says, I should have called my sons doctor. Which of course, made me feel even worse. With the fear of my depression coming back as ppd [I’ve had a diagnosed major depression since 17, I’m 24 now, unmedicated] and tired of crying everytime I pump..not to sound like a baby but I’m in tears thinking about it. I’ve decided to stop pumping and to get the hospital to wean him onto formula as soon as he weighs enough [ his night nurse informed me that there is a certain weight he has to be before they will wean him off of donor milk and onto formula] . I’m still sad that despite my efforts, I can’t provide what he needs, but I know it’s better to help my mental sanity than to try to continue trying and failing to pump. But, thank you for allowing me to tell my story and thank you did this godsend of a post. It helps me not feel quite as guilty for stopping, even though my son isn’t very old. Now to figure out how to avoid the LC that will surely be calling me when she learns I have stopped and try to guilt trip me into starting to pump again.. 😦


  2. Why didn’t I find this post while my son was in the NICU?! He’s 5 months old and 11 lbs now, born at 26 weeks, 1.5 lbs. I have pumped myself silly these past five months to make just barely (and now not enough) milk for him. It’s caused me so much anxiety, and stress, hanging onto a dead dream of nursing and feeding him only breast milk. My pumping schedule has caused so much tension in my home. Life revolves around my pumping schedule. Oh, NICU moms everywhere. I love you. You are doing a great job.


  3. Thanks for this post. Im 10months into pumping (just a tiny but now) for my 26-weeker…less than 2 months before we’re through flu season and I quit. So many conflicting thoughts aand emotions – thanks for voicing them.


  4. I was a preemie myself and my mom has mentioned the problems she had with breastfeeding me. I was born at 28 weeks and her body just wasn’t ready to start milk production, so she struggled as well for the first few months. By the time I came home she could only breastfeed a little, and the rest of my diet was formula. Now I’m 24 and expecting my own baby boy this summer! I’m glad to hear about Jax’s success and I know this is a post I’ll refer to if I need reassurance about formula feeding.


    1. Meredith – thank you for sharing your story. I really love hearing from older preemies. I think it is wonderful that your mother shared her struggles with you. Breastfeeding your baby is such a special experience and I’m sad that I never got that opportunity. I hope that by sharing my story other preemie moms won’t feel so alone. Congratulations on your baby boy – how wonderful! 🙂


  5. I love this. I’ve just found this blog. I have been reading old posts all night. I’m in Australia and gave birth to twins earlier this year. My son Lincoln was born at 23w6d 1lb 4.6oz and my daughter Dakota came the following day 1lb 2oz. We only had her for a week but she has been her big brothers angel over the last 7.5months.

    I was on the other side of the fence; one of the Mum’s who would fill 2 bottles every 3 hours. I distinctly remember a nurse telling me on day 1 that I probably wouldn’t have a good supply being only 24 weeks pregnant and that I should consent for donor milk to be given. That was it for me. I was determined to prove her wrong. And I did. I am proud of the fact that I managed to donate 66L to the milk bank (17.4 gallons according to google conversion) and am still breastfeeding Lincoln, but his slow weight gain has me constantly worrying about whether I should switch to formula. The guilt happens with either option. I know my supply is good and he’s never hungry but I just want him to be fat!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading, Jenna! I’m glad you found us. Congratulations on your twins! I am so sorry for your loss of Dakota. ❤ She is an angel, for certain. I'm os proud of you for donating your extra breast milk – what an amazing gift you had to give. And wow – 17 gallons?!?! Amazing. Hang in there, mama – our doctors always told us that as long as the weight gain followed the curve (even if it was slow) that was ok. Keep me posted! I'd love to hear more about your family.


  6. I know I’m WAY late posting on this topic. I wish I had read this months ago. Like you I was so excited to get milk for my 23-weeker. I was doing something for him! He started on it, then had an intestinal perforation and had to stick to TPN so I built quite a large supply in the freezer. The LC in the NICU was really high pressure. I’d get comments like, “Oh, you’re only pumping X times per day.” And “Better pump while you can because you’ll likely dry up around 3-4 months.” And “Pump a lot because once you get your period your supply will plummet.” I had so much anxiety about how much milk I was getting! I thought I was doing a terrible job because I couldn’t manage to pump every 3 hours and wasn’t filling the bottles etc. Finally the NP at my OB’s office told me I was doing an amazing job for having delivered at 23 weeks. I burst into tears of relief. Once Rory came home my supply plummeted because I was exhausted and running to appointments and doing all the new mom things you have to do and figure out how to manage. I was ready to quit. Then his pediatrician said, “Well, if it can save him a hospitalization.” Ouch. I managed to get through his first birthday thanks to Fenugreek and Domperidone. By the end I was getting less than an ounce per day. My last session was a week ago today. I still feel guilty, but it’s also a HUGE relief. I love the line about Love being Liquid Gold. If there’s a time when I start to feel guilty, I am going to repeat that to myself. Typing all this and knowing there are others out there who had similar experiences is so helpful. Okay, I’m done with my narrative now. This was very cathartic!


    1. Wow – a YEAR – that is amazing! Great job, mama! I did not make it any where near that long! (And I’m mostly ok with that now! 🙂 ) Pumping was such a huge source of stress for me in the NICU. I remember feeling so *free* when I finally made the decision to stop. It was like a huge boulder was lifted off of my shoulders and I could finally focus on LOVE instead of how many measly mls of milk I could produce. I was so scared to publish this post because all I ever heard was positive breastfeeding / pumping stories. I thought I was all alone – but nope! That’s why I love this blog! 🙂


  7. This is all too familiar! Thanks for that post! I felt that same pressure and guilt. Glad us nicu moms can all stick together and give advice to new nicu moms! 😉


  8. Love this. It’s so similar to my experience when my little guy was in the NICU, and boy did I feel guilty about it! Although I didn’t have the Reglan effects that you did, I had the same experience with the lactation consultants. Sigh. Thank you for sharing so that maybe others don’t feel the same pressure.

    Also, I wrote about my NICU pumping experience at http://mythbustingmommy.com/i-support-you/ if you’re interested.


    1. Thanks for sharing your link. I really didn’t expect to hear from so many mama’s who had similar experiences. I was thinking I was the only one who struggled with pumping! Now I know that is not true. I like the idea of the “I Support You” campaign…no matter how we feed our babies we all just want to do what’s best for them and whatever that is might be different from kid to kid and mom to mom. I’m looking forward to reading more on Myth Busting Mommy!


  9. Well said. Breastfeeding is such a fraught topic. Add the pressure of the NICU- and a difficult and high stress situation is that much worse. I know I was lucky. My body was in over drive producing milk for triplets- even though I just had one baby. Things were way different for my first (and term) baby. My milk dried up by 6 months, and even before that we had been supplementing with formula since my supply was low.

    I wrote this a year ago about my experiences: http://www.talesoftheantipreemie.com/my-breastfeeding-experiences-a-tale-of-contrasts/

    Thanks for sharing your story.


    1. Thanks for sharing your link, Melissa! I agree: cuddling up to a machine is not at all like cuddling up to a new baby! 🙂 That’s great that Sam was able to do recreational feeding so early. Jax started at 30 weeks…and by the time he was ready to actually try breastfeeding, my milk had disappeared. But I was so glad that I at least had the chance to see what it was like!


  10. Oy, pumping… I pumped for my boys 2 month NICU stay and barely got an ounce on each side on a really good pumping session.They outpaced me by the time they were 3 pounds each! I nearly had a mental breakdown the day I DROPPED A BOTTLE OF MILK.

    My favorite thing (meaning, the worst thing) was that everyone told me “think of your babies! look at pictures of your babies!” while I was trying to pump. Well, my babies scared the living crap out of me and pictures of them made me unbelievably upset and stressed out those first weeks. Not so surprisingly all those pictures did not help me increase my supply.

    But the babies got fed milk, formula, or some mixture, they grew and came home. That’s all that I care about now.


    1. Ha – any one who says “no use crying over spilled milk” obviously never dropped a bottle of hard-earned breast milk! I almost had a breakdown when I did that, too. You’ve got it right now – they grew and came home. That is the most important thing!


  11. Thanks for telling your story. Out of necessity, I’m a formula mom too. My milk never came in when Charlie was in the NICU. The pressure and stress others placed on me was a lot of nonsense that I did not really need at the time.


  12. Great post! Thank you! My story is similar. I topped out at about 1 oz and then he got sick and I sunk back down to 15 mLs per pump. I also took all that you took and tried acupuncture and…and…and…and. It’s important that those of us who struggle share our stories because the guilt is overwhelming.


    1. I’m surprised at the amount of people who are sharing similar stories. I felt like I was the lone “non breast feeder!” I’m so glad I decided to write about this…it seems to have brought a lot of feelings to the surface. I love our blog community!


  13. As usual, Andrea, you gave it everything you could. Perhaps that was a good combination as Steve could get more involved with the formula. Whatever you did, there was love attached and that is the best of all.


  14. With my first one we had a hard time getting the whole latching on thing so I pumped. It was awful. She got breastmilk for about a 1 1/2 months & then had to do to formula. I like you Andrea felt awful. I thought I was the worst mom in the whole world for not being able to provide this for her. I worked with people who were breastfeeding their kid until they were almost 2. I thought what in the world am I doing wrong. I felt the worst guilt about it. She went to formula & has turned out just fine. It was actually better because like you husband they got a chance to bond more over the feedings that he could do too. So I totally understand what you went through. You are exactly right “breast milk is liquid gold,but formula is ok too.”


    1. Thank you for reaching out and for sharing your experience, Guilia. I think it’s great that so many moms can breastfeed successfully. But, I think there needs to be more support for those of us who try and can’t. We have each other to lean on!


  15. Andrea, I can’t imagine what you felt. I breast fed my first for the first 6 months of his life. When I had my second, I was very stressed out as I had a 3 year old running around who knew he could cause trouble when mom was busy….so I didn’t produce very much milk. I only lasted breastfeeding for 6 weeks with Isaiah. Talk about feeling the guilt. I felt as though I was completely cheating him because Noah got 6 months! I was terrified that he was going to be sick all of the time and going to have ear infections and wouldn’t be NEARLY as smart as Noah, because he wasn’t breastfed for as long. Oh and the bonding….I “bonded” with Noah for so much longer, and Isaiah was being cheated. Ugh, I wore myself out with worry and guilt. But when I finally gave him that first bottle of formula…I was just going to try once a day. I was sold, and he was formula fed from then on out….it was so much easier. So I get the guilt. I am just sorry you had to be given such a huge guilt trip from the lactation consultant. Shame on her. She should know better than anybody else, that some mom’s can’t breast feed, even if they want to. So telling you that is the ONLY thing you can give or do for your baby is ridiculous, insensitive and unprofessional. You gave him life, you gave him love through your touch, through your words, through your heart. Love is the liquid gold she should have been referring to. A mother’s love is like nothing else. You gave him all the gold he needed.


      1. Yes, LOVE is the liquid gold ! So well said 🙂 I will use that mind set to try to let go of the guilt with you all my babies were formula fed.


      2. Yes – let’s let go of the guilt together, Libby. Look at your kids – they turned out to be funny, creative, and thoughtful people. Good job!


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