Breastfeeding a premature baby: A first-time mother’s story

'We were super well prepared' thanks to the help of a lactation consultant at Sanford Health.

Maria and Michael Gallagher and their daughter, Kaida

Breastfeeding can be challenging, especially for first-time mothers.

It can be especially challenging for first-time mothers with a premature baby.

When Maria and Michael Gallagher found out their first child would be born early because of a condition called gastroschisis, a¬†congenital birth defect in which the baby’s intestines protrude out of the abdomen and float in the amniotic fluid, Maria knew time spent in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) might make her adjustment to breastfeeding a little different than usual.

Because breastfeeding is especially important for premature babies, Maria and Michael met with Lori Johnson, a lactation consultant at Sanford Health, who provided the couple with prenatal breastfeeding education before the baby was born and worked with the family during their one month stay in the NICU at Sanford Children’s Hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

“She was a huge blessing for us,” Maria said.

Feeding in the NICU

Johnson first met with the Gallaghers four weeks before their daughter, Kaida, was born. She walked the first-time parents through the process of breastfeeding after delivery, including how the first few weeks would look since Maria would not be able to breastfeed right away.

A baby born with gastroschisis is given IV nutrition for the first few weeks. Feedings through a naso-gastric (NG) tube will then be introduced along with the IV feedings, and will be slowly increased until the baby is able to have oral feedings. In Kaida’s case, oral feedings started with a bottle filled with her mother’s breast milk.

“Our baby wasn’t able to eat until she was about three weeks old,” Maria said. “I tried a little bit of nursing while she was in the NICU, but she was really spitty. It got to be a little overwhelming for me and was stressful because we were just trying to get her to grow.”

‘Feeling at ease’

Despite a few minor frustrations, Maria credits her family’s positive NICU experience to Johnson’s help and support before, during and after her daughter’s birth.

“We were super well prepared,” she said. “I didn’t feel nervous, I wasn’t scared. I felt like we had been educated very well.”

Maria recalls Johnson being at her side the very next day after Kaida was born, making sure she understood and felt comfortable with the breastfeeding and pumping process.

“I went in feeling at ease and at peace because I knew what to expect,” Maria said. “Lori visited at least once a day every day I was in the NICU.¬†I could be honest with her and she was always right there to help. I still visit her every time we go back.”

Heading home

For many first-time parents, heading home from the hospital can be a bit overwhelming. But for Maria, the transition was one she was looking forward to.

“The NICU is excellent for what they do, but it’s not the same as being home. I was able to be more comfortable and sit in my own chair,” she said.

Once Kaida had two weeks of solid weight checks, Maria decided they were ready to handle nursing rather than just using a bottle. Though she wasn’t fully nursing until almost three weeks after they’d been home, Maria says finally reaching that point was satisfying.

“It was challenging at first. There were times I was ready to quit because she wasn’t latching on well or stuff like that, but my husband kept encouraging me and telling me to keep going. Now it’s super rewarding.”

If you find breastfeeding to be a challenge, Sanford Health offers support services that connect you with other moms and educators ready to answer your questions.

Posted In Health Information, Women's

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