Breastfeeding Roadblocks in the NICU

It is World Breastfeeding Week, so I wanted to share my first breastfeeding experience. It’s kind of a long story, but I hope it helps somebody who might be going through something similar.

If you desire to breastfeed your baby, but all odds seem like they are pushing against you, don't give up. The fight might be hard, but it will likely subside and you'll be breastfeeding your baby before you know it.When you are a first-time pregger mama, I think you expect things to go how you imagine them.

You think your labor will be quick and drug-free.

You think your stay in the hospital will be a maximum of 48 hours and you’ll be recovered by that time as well.

You think your baby will breastfeed from the start and have no issues whatsoever.

It’s great to keep a positive outlook on delivering your baby, but you cannot expect things to happen exactly how you plan.

Breastfeeding in the NICU

My first breastfeeding experience was not a success for a while. I had an epidural for my delivery, and that could have been a big reason why my daughter was so sleepy and hard to feed soon after birth.

Another ginormous reason breastfeeding was unsuccessful at first was that my daughter was whisked away to the NICU only a few hours after she was born. She had to stay in the NICU for the next several nights.

When I first saw her laying in an incubator in the NICU, I couldn’t handle it. I began to cry and wonder how my first-born ended up here. Then I noticed all the tubes entering her nose and mouth and it saddened me even more.

The tube going down her throat and the fact that she was having a difficult time breathing made it almost impossible for her to latch effectively and take my milk. Although breastfeeding wasn’t working out how I had imagined it, I still diligently visited her in the NICU every chance I could and tried to breastfeed each time. I also rented a pump from the hospital to make sure that my milk would come in, whether she could drink it or not.

NICU Rules

The NICU had Sofía on a strict schedule. I was to adhere to that schedule, and it didn’t make things any easier in the breastfeeding department. Every three hours I went downstairs and signed in to visit my baby. I would use the time to change her diaper, try and breastfeed, and hold her for a small amount of time until I had to leave. Unfortunately, the breastfeeding just wasn’t working out so well.

Before my milk came in, I was only getting drops of colostrum. I would put whatever I could catch in a bottle just like it was gold, and that would be the first thing she would drink when I went to visit her. For the first several days, the only thing my body was producing was colostrum. Of course that’s how the body works, but I was terribly worried, thinking that my milk would never come in because it had already taken much too long. Thankfully, the 4th night after she was born, my milk started to come. I was able to start filling the little bottles more quickly. I would take the bottles to the NICU fridge so she could drink my milk instead of the formula they were giving her.

The second night in, my worst nightmare came true. A nurse tried to convince me that Sofía needed to drink formula. She told me that if she was going to leave, she had to gain weight, and she wasn’t getting much colostrum, let alone any milk, so she had to start on formula.

I didn’t want her on formula. I knew it just wasn’t the right start for my baby. I wanted to fight the nurse, the NICU, the hospital, but I could not. She had to drink the formula if she was going to leave anytime soon.

So the first few minutes she would drink my colostrum, and then she was required to drink 30 mL of formula within 30 minutes. Almost impossible.

What Kind of Mom Forgets Her Baby?

The second night, my husband went home to sleep. The hospital room only had two places where he could sleep: a chair and a very uncomfortable window seat. I set my alarm to wake up at 3 AM to feed Sofía. I must have slept right through that alarm, because the next time I woke up was with my 6 AM alarm. I was panicked. I began to cry, knowing that I had not been there for my baby girl when I was supposed to. I ran downstairs, but I had to wait to enter. They were doing routine checks and no one was allowed to enter until that was finished.

I finally got to go in, and I found out that the nurse had fed my baby some colostrum and formula at the 3 AM feeding. I felt like the worst mother, sleeping through the night when my baby needed me. The nurse offered some words of encouragement saying that I only just became a mom and I could not hear my baby, so I really shouldn’t feel bad about it.

Switching from Formula to Breastmilk

The whole time Sofía was in the NICU, I felt bitter towards the staff and hospital. I felt like they had taken away my right as a mom. I wanted to breastfeed my baby most of all, but I could not. I tried, but I failed.

Fortunately my daughter was only in the NICU for 4 nights. The real challenge with our breastfeeding journey was just beginning, but I was still determined to make it work.

When she came home, all she wanted to do was sleep. This made things doubly hard when I would try to breastfeed her. I continued to give her formula, and I also pumped every few hours. It felt like all I was doing was pumping. As the days went on, I began to replace the formula with my pumped milk until she was no longer drinking any formula. My next task was to eliminate the bottle so that I could breastfeed only.

How Could My Baby Reject Me?

Several times during this short period of a few days, I could not believe that my daughter wanted nothing to do with breastfeeding. There were a few times that I would bring her close and she would begin to cry, and then I would start to cry. I just wanted to form a relationship with her and give her the nourishment she needed. Was that so much to ask?

I believe part of the problem was that breastfeeding was too hard for her. At that point, she was used to a bottle. The milk starts flowing the moment you begin to suck. But breastfeeding takes work. One way I tried to help her was by expressing milk before bringing her to me. Sometimes this worked and sometimes it didn’t.

One of the times when she cried as I tried to breastfeed her, I gave up momentarily and my mother-in-law took her from me. Amazingly, she started rooting around looking for my mother-in-law’s milk (which obviously did not exist!). I just couldn’t handle it anymore, so I decided to cut her off from the bottle. It may not have been the smartest thing I’ve ever done, but it definitely was the best thing I did for our breastfeeding journey.

Within a couple hours, she was finally drinking off me. From that point on, I no longer offered a bottle to her. I wish I could tell you that it was smooth sailing from there, but it definitely was not. There was toe-curling pain for months. I handled it by making sure I was distracted with something to watch each time she started to drink. She also might have had thrush, but I will never know since I didn’t get it diagnosed by her doctor. There were plenty of times when I was so engorged that the minute I would open up to start feeding her, milk started spraying every which way and sometimes straight in her face. Good times, good times.

The reason I wanted to share this lengthy story with you was to possibly help another mom out. I believe that if you have a strong desire to breastfeed, and all odds seem like they are pushing against you, you have to fight back and make sure that you are doing what you desired all along. Breastfeeding is harder than I ever imagined, but it was a wonderful experience that I had the pleasure of going through with both of my daughters. I wish you the best of luck on your own breastfeeding journey!

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I'm a mom of 3 on a journey to feed my family nourishing foods. Personally, I believe that you can feed your family healthy, delicious meals without spending a fortune or slaving away in the kitchen.


  1. Thanks for sharing, Charlee! I can’t imagine the difficulty of having your newborn in the NICU. There are some great doctors and nurses in the NICU who are willing to learn some of the newer ideas regarding kangaroo care/breastfeeding/etc., and also some really nice nurses and doctors that are just old school. I want to give you a hug for working so hard for your baby! It’s bringing back memories of my first. Delivery was smooth, and we were released after two days, but I had NO IDEA that he wasn’t actually breastfeeding. I thought, “he’s there, so he must be nursing, right?” At his 4 day check up my sweet family doctor realized the problem right away. We got a bilirubin blanket and some (brief) nursing help, and spent the next few long days with little sleep and constant pumping and attempted nursing. I can still remember when he finally got nursing down. It was so emotional and I was so grateful. As women we need to talk about breastfeeding more with our friends and family members instead of it being this secret thing that women have to figure out in solitary confinement after the craziness of having a new baby. I bet your story will help other mamas in similar situations.

    • You had quite the first experience, Janeen. What an emotional time that must have been. You would think that a baby would just know what to do and start doing it, but that’s not always the case! It definitely seems like we can’t be open about our experiences with breastfeeding, and if that would change then more moms would have success with it. Thanks so much for reading. 🙂

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