Mom Shares Breastfeeding Journey After Daughter’s NICU Stay

Breastfeeding plays a crucial role in early growth and development. It delivers essential nutrients for a healthy start in life.

But for babies who spend time in neonatal intensive care, the feeding journey often looks very different. 

That was the experience for April Wallace, following the birth of her second child. Wallace’s daughter spent her first 5 days in the NICU, where she initially received nutrition from a feeding tube, followed by bottle feeding. 

Right from the start I could tell it was going to be completely different from the journey with my son,” Wallace recalls. “The events following each of their births were very different….”

Wallace’s daughter struggled with nipple confusion and proper latch when attempting to breastfeed. The whole ordeal was mentally and physically exhausting for mom and baby alike. 

“Struggling with every step of the way with her grew very tiring.”

 In her quest for breastfeeding solutions, Wallace discovered the Ninni pacifier. Thanks to its soft, breastlike shape, the Ninni mimics the oral movements necessary for successful feeding. Wallace says it made a big difference and even lengthened her daughter’s breastfeeding journey. 

Feeding Challenges After NICU

Like Wallace’s daughter, many babies have challenges with breastfeeding after NICU

April Wallace cradles her baby daughter in nicu

In addition to difficulties with latch, production and nipple confusion, infants may struggle with sucking movements and developing a mature swallow-breathe pattern. They may also tire easily when trying to breastfeed. 

It’s a journey filled with ups and downs that requires lots of patience and lots of practice.

Many post-NICU babies receive a combination of breast milk and formula to ensure they get enough nutrients. Health providers, lactation consultants, breastfeeding peer counselors and breastfeeding support groups can offer vital tips along with emotional support for those struggling to breastfeed. 

Addressing Nipple Confusion

Nipple confusion, sometimes called nipple preference, happens when baby has trouble switching between breast and bottle feeding. 

It’s a special concern for babies who begin life with feeding methods other than breastfeeding. That’s because feeding techniques are different for the bottle than for the breast. 

Moms are typically advised to wait until breastfeeding is well established before offering a bottle. But for babies who spend time in the NICU, that isn’t always possible. Alternative methods and supplemental nutrition are often required until baby can successfully learn to breastfeed. 

“My daughter struggled with nipple confusion for the first few months of life” after leaving the NICU, Wallace recalls. “She was supplemented with bottles to get her off the feeding tube and grew pretty comfortable with that.”

Close attention to proper positioning helps at the beginning. 

  • Baby should be positioned tummy-to-tummy with mom, ear in line with mom’s hips and head tilted slightly back. Baby’s nose should be pointed toward mom’s nipple. 
  • To achieve a proper latch, baby’s mouth should be wide open and covering the areola more on the chin side than on the nose side. 
  • Skin-to-skin contact helps baby relax, and mom should offer gentle praise when baby gets it right. 

Recognizing baby’s hunger cues also helps. These include sucking on fingers, rousing from sleep and fussing but not yet crying. Massaging the breast and expressing a small amount of milk before baby latches offers an immediate reward and more satisfying experience.

Developing Proper Latch

As Wallace and countless other moms have learned all too well, getting a good latch takes more than just a little bit of practice. 

Swaddled baby girl with ninni pacifier

A proper latch means baby is getting more milk, which translates into more nutrition for healthy growth and development. It also means mom is more comfortable during the whole experience. 

There are many factors that may hinder baby’s ability to latch correctly

  • Prematurity
  • Jaundice
  • Infection
  • Heart problems
  • Mom’s medications
  • Tongue tie
  • Cleft lip
  • Cleft palate

Tips for a Proper Latch  

A good latch begins with getting baby’s mouth in the correct position. Mom can start by gently tickling baby’s lips with the nipple, which causes baby to open their mouth.

  • Aim the nipple just above baby’s upper lip. Make sure baby’s chin is not tucked into their chest.
  • Guide baby’s lower lip away from the base of the nipple. Baby’s lips should turn outward.
  • Baby’s tongue should be extended, allowing the breast to fill baby’s mouth.
  • Baby’s head and stomach should rest comfortably against mom’s body. 
  • The head should be straight, with the chin touching mom’s breast. 
  • Make sure your baby’s mouth is opened wide around the breast, instead of just the nipple.
  • Mom should be able to hear and see baby swallowing, with their ears moving ever-so slightly.

Signs of Breastfeeding Issues  

Breastfeeding should not be painful for mom. Your breasts should feel full just before feeding and softer after nursing. If your breasts hurt during or after feeding, or if your breasts become bruised, red or cracked, ask for help. You should also talk to your health provider if you experience plugged milk ducts. 

Here are some other signs to watch closely:

  • Feeding too often or too little: Baby may not wake on their own to cue for a feeding. They may cue to feed less than 8 times in 24 hours or 14 or more times in 24 hours.
  • Difficulties during feeding: Notice if baby repeatedly latches and lets go, or resists attempts to latch. Baby may fall asleep soon after latching or sucking for only a few mintues, or feed for 45 minutes or longer without feeling full. In other cases baby will nurse one breast disproportionately longer than the other. 
  • Pay attention to diaper changes: Baby may not be getting enough nutrition if they have fewer than 3 to 4 stools in 24 hours, or produce fewer than 6 wet diapers in 24 hours after the first week. 

How the Ninni Pacifier Helps

Wallace discovered the Ninni pacifier on an Instagram reel.

Happy mom joyfully lifts infant daughter in the air while outside at a ballfield

“I actually fell in love with just how cute the pacifiers looked,” she says, “and it was kind of a bonus that they were designed for breastfeeding at first!”

Wallace loves the shape and variety of colors available. Unlike traditional soothers, the Ninni resembles the areola and nipple. This makes it a great choice for babies who need a little more practice with correct breastfeeding movements.

The Ninni is made with medical-grade silicone, which gives it a gentle, skin-like texture. Holes around the nipple let baby breathe comfortably while soothing. It’s also dishwasher safe, making it easy to clean. 

Reinforcing Proper Latch   

Because her daughter was unable to latch until the end of her NICU stay, Wallace says “the Ninni became our first practice at trying to get her used to latching to me.”

In spite of encountering a learning curve at first, Wallace says persistence pays off when it comes to the Ninni. “I truly feel like it saved us.”

The Ninni is also a favorite of doctors and lactation consultants, thanks to its usefulness in achieving a proper latch. 

Practice & Patience   

Happy family with dad, mom, young son and infant daughter

The Ninni does require some practice, Wallace explains, because “it’s not like other pacifiers that you can just pop in their mouths and they get it right away.” 

For most babies, getting a successful latch and a flawless feeding journey right away is almost unheard of. But “the reward we had of sticking to the Ninni, watching the progress in her latch, then to my supply was absolutely worth it.”

Not only did the Ninni get her daughter to breastfeeding success, it also really helped her learn to self-soothe independently. “Having something to give you that break in those tough moments is life changing for your journey.”

Help with Oral Development   

In addition to breastfeeding practice, Wallace says the Ninni has helped with oral development.

“With my first [baby] I was skeptical of using a pacifier because I was afraid of the issues it could cause,” Wallace says.

Her daughter has used a Ninni a lot longer than her son used his pacifier, “and her teeth have no issues!”