The Vital Importance of Breastfeeding in the NICU: An Event That Lasts a Lifetime

February 12, 2024 | by Stephani Monhollon
The Vital Importance of Breastfeeding in the NICU: An Event That Lasts a Lifetime

In the delicate environment of the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), where tiny fighters embark on their journeys to health, the significance of breastfeeding cannot be overstated. That’s why the NICU team at Pediatrix® Neonatology of San Antonio collaborated with other teams, such as labor and delivery, newborn nursery and post-partum units, at Baptist Children’s Hospital at North Central to launch an inaugural breastfeeding event last August for National Breastfeeding Month and World Breastfeeding Week.

All four area NICUs in the Baptist Health System participated in the event, which focused on educating families about the importance of breast milk for their NICU babies while having some fun that would involve the entire family.

“We decorated our big NICU windows with a ‘World Breastfeeding Week’ sign, and we had golden milk drops made so if parents pumped, breastfed or did skin-to-skin contact so dads or other family members could participate, they could fill out a milk drop and post it on the window,” said Mary Wearden, M.D., a board-certified neonatologist and practice medical director at Pediatrix Neonatology of San Antonio. “We saw huge engagement from parents. As soon as they finished, they got excited about filling out a milk drop and adding it to the window. Parents even made designs like flowers out of their milk drops.”

For the event, themed “Super Heroes,” the staff donated raffle gifts for drawings to get parents excited and involved. One of the nurses made baby blankets and a quilt to be given away. They also gave out water bottles, lactation cookies and little onesies that read, “My Mom’s a Super Hero.” Throughout World Breastfeeding Week, participating staff wore shirts that read, “Helping mamas express themselves” as they visited hospital rooms to give out prizes.

“We posted a new breastfeeding fact on the unit every day so parents and staff could see it, and shared it on social media to reach more families,” said Dr. Wearden. “We had a lot of engagement from parents and staff, and our nurses provided breastfeeding education to families and peers in the other units.”


Education is Paramount

While the benefits of breastfeeding are numerous, providing education, especially to families with sick or premature babies and those caring for them, is essential. The daily facts provided as part of the event helped educate parents and staff about the value of breastfeeding and breast milk.

“Because families and staff had to walk by the breastfeeding facts each day, they were able to learn about hormones, how breastfeeding helps with postpartum, the bonding it provides, milk production and the benefits of breast milk,” said Katelyn Brown, M.S., CCC-SLP, the regional NICU and pediatric therapy manager at Baptist Health System. “Giving them a daily fact about breast milk and breastfeeding, giving them the milk drops to display and then being able to see the visual on the windows really encouraged parents. They could do anything, like bonding with their baby, to get the milk drops. They saw their peers doing it and celebrating in a way you typically don’t get to in the NICU.”

Excitement in the NICU

Having a baby in the NICU is an extremely stressful time for families. The breastfeeding event got them enthused and focused on participating in their baby’s care.

“The most important thing was the excitement around the event, because while we have providers talk to these parents one-on-one, this made everyone collectively excited about it,” said Clarissa DeLeon, M.D., a board-certified neonatologist with Pediatrix Neonatology of San Antonio. “A secondary benefit was how excited the staff got because it’s been a major initiative for us to get the moms pumping and sustain it. During the event, the display of milk drops on the wall kept getting bigger and bigger, and our goal was immediately surpassed.”

As the milk drops continued filling the windows, it became a great distraction for parents and gave them something uplifting on which to focus.

“The family that made the flower out of the milk drops had a baby who was extremely ill and on the ventilator with pneumonia,” said Dr. Wearden. “I really think the mom and dad’s eagerness to put those milk drops on the window and make a flower not only helped them get through this very difficult time but it also kept that mother pumping at a time when she easily could have quit. It was honestly heartwarming to see the mother do that for her sick baby.”

Why All the Hype About Breast Milk?

The fundamental act of providing breast milk goes beyond nourishment, serving as a lifeline for premature and ill infants. Breastfeeding in the NICU is indispensable for numerous reasons, including:

  • Nutritional goldmine — Breast milk is nature's perfect formula, specifically tailored to meet the unique needs of a premature or ill newborn. It provides a crucial blend of proteins, fats, vitamins and antibodies, promoting optimal growth and development during this critical stage.
  • Immunity boost — The immune system of a preterm infant is underdeveloped, making them more susceptible to infections. Breast milk, rich in antibodies and immune-boosting factors, acts as a protective shield, fortifying the baby against various illnesses.
  • Gut health matters — Premature infants often face challenges developing a healthy gut microbiome. Breast milk plays a pivotal role in fostering the growth of beneficial bacteria, which is essential for digestive health and nutrient absorption.
  • Bonding and comfort — The NICU environment can be overwhelming for both parents and infants. Breastfeeding offers a precious opportunity for skin-to-skin contact, fostering a strong emotional bond between parent and child. This connection provides comfort and stability during a tumultuous time.
  • Developmental milestones — Beyond nutrition, breastfeeding supports the baby's sensory and oral-motor development. The act of suckling helps strengthen facial muscles and promotes coordination, setting the stage for essential milestones, such as latching and swallowing.
  • Tailored nutrition — Breast milk composition adapts to the changing needs of a growing baby. Its nutritional content evolves to match the infant’s developmental stage, ensuring a customized source of sustenance.
  • Reduction of complications — Numerous studies have highlighted the positive impact of breastfeeding on reducing the risk of complications, such as necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) and sepsis in preterm infants. The protective properties of breast milk contribute significantly to improved health outcomes.
  • Long-term benefits — The benefits of breastfeeding extend beyond the NICU. Research indicates that preterm infants who receive breast milk may experience improved cognitive development and a reduced risk of chronic conditions later in life.

Annual Breastfeeding Event: Making a Difference for Babies and Families

The NICU team at Pediatrix Neonatology of San Antonio will continue to educate and promote breastfeeding year round. They plan to hold the breastfeeding event every August to reiterate the importance of breast milk and breastfeeding and help educate those who need it the most.

“Breastfeeding is a powerful tool that can significantly impact the health and well-being of premature or ill infants,” said Dr. Wearden. “As we recognize the multifaceted advantages of breastfeeding, its role in the NICU becomes increasingly essential, contributing to the foundation of a healthier, stronger future for these resilient little ones.”

Read more about breastfeeding, breast milk and their impact on newborn health and well-being.