Breastfeeding while mama is ill is one thing. Oh, I’ve been there, so ill I’ve had to have my husband bring me the baby to nurse and then take him away again because I couldn’t stand up.
But what if mama is so ill or injured, she requires a hospital stay? What can a breastfeeding mother do to maintain her breastfeeding relationship? Often, when a mother is scheduled for a surgical procedure, she is advised to stop breastfeeding or discard her milk for a period of time. This is usually not necessary.
This past year, two of my friends had to have surgery and were hospitalized, and I gleaned some tips from their experiences.
The biggest thing: tell everyone, repeatedly, loudly, and in writing, that you are a breastfeeding mother. Hang a sign on your door. Repeat this phrase to everyone who walks in your room, since so many people are in and out of there checking vitals and administering meds.
If there is time, speak with your doctor/anesthesiologist about alternative medications that are compatible with breastfeeding. If you don’t have access to Medications and Mother’s Milk, reach out to a lactation consultant and confirm your anesthesia and pain medication’s compatibility with breastfeeding. If the hospital where you are staying has a labor and delivery unit, ask to speak with their staff lactation consultants.
Write everything down. If you are unable to write, ask your partner to help record absolutely every medication you are being given. Common pain medications can indeed be compatible with breastfeeding (see here or here), but even if you, your doctor, and your lactation consultant know this, not everyone is aware.
In some cases, the staff you are in regular contact with will not know or understand your milk is safe for your baby. Whether you are feeling up to feeding your baby directly during a visit or expressing milk to send home, you might have to protect this milk in your own cooler, having your partner take it home as often as possible.
Vanessa, a mom who was hospitalized last winter for ankle surgery, shares that the floor nurses kept offering to dump her milk as she pumped, telling her she could not feed it to her baby. Vanessa even slept with her pumped milk in her bed one night, fearful the nurses would erroneously discard it.
Sara, who was hospitalized recently for neck surgery, experienced nurses and staff who did not know how to safely store her expressed milk. Telling her she couldn’t put it in the patient refrigerator on the floor, they sent the milk to labor and delivery, where it was mis-labeled, misplaced and eventually discarded.
Most hospitals will have access to a hospital-grade breast pump nursing mothers can use while hospitalized. If not, and if you have enough notice before your stay, consider renting this type of pump for before, during, and even after your stay. It will work faster than a standard electric pump and this will mean extra time for you to rest and recover. Especially if you aren’t usually separated from your baby, this type of pump can help you to build a stash of milk for your baby if you know about your hospitalization in advance.
After discharge, arrange for support while you recover, both to make sure you are able to rest and also to make sure you have support re-establishing a latch if you’ve been separated from your baby for some time. A lactation consultant can help to get your nursing relationship back on track if you’ve noticed a dip in supply. A serious illness or surgical procedure can take a big toll on the body, but it is possible to re-establish supply once you’ve allowed your body to heal.