Nursing Mom Should Stay With Baby If Hospitalized

Key Takeaways

  • The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine recommends that the breastfeeding parent and their nursing baby be hospitalized together if either of them requires a hospital stay.
  • This is to facilitate bonding, prevent disruption to breastfeeding, and avoid complications like mastitis.
  • Most neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) and children’s hospitals already have breastfeeding policies in place, but many adult hospitals do not.

The World Health Organization and most health authorities recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, followed by continued breastfeeding with complementary foods for at least the first two years of life. 

If a breastfeeding parent or their child needs to be hospitalized at birth or later in the infant’s life, it can disrupt breastfeeding and result in unintended weaning or health complications like mastitis. To address this issue, the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine (ABM) released recommendations, published in the peer-reviewed journal Breastfeeding Medicine, that the nursing parent and their child stay together if either needs to be hospitalized. 

What Are the Recommendations? 

The first ABM recommendation is that any institution admitting women of child-bearing age or children age 2 and under should have a written policy in place to support the lactating mother and breastfeeding child. The policy should have components that allow a child and their mother to be together as much as possible, specifying where the infant is permitted to be and which staff members can routinely handle the infant. There also should be instructions for safe sleeping equipment for the infant. 

Hospitals should make it a priority for mother and child to be at the same facility, even if this requires transfer arrangements. If it’s the child who requires hospitalization, the facility ideally should be able to provide food, hygiene, and accommodation for their mother. 

Jessica Madden, MD, IBCLC

The real changes need to occur with the implementation of breastfeeding policies and lactation policies in adult hospitals.

— Jessica Madden, MD, IBCLC

Plus, the mother and infant should share a room wherever possible. The recommendations stress that it’s even more essential for mother and infant to be together as much as possible when the infant is very young, in order to establish and maintain breastfeeding. 

Additionally, the breastfeeding mother should have access to lactation support and a plan should be in place for milk expression, storage, and handling when required. Further recommendations address the frequency of milk expression, aides to increase milk expression (like relaxation and gentle massage), and storage of expressed milk. 

The ABM recommends direct breastfeeding over pumping or hand expression, and states that holding a child to the breast to nurse can be performed even by a mother who is weak and debilitated by illness. If a mother unfamiliar with pumping needs to pump, she should receive advice and support from knowledgeable staff.

Adult Hospitals, Take Note

Pediatrician and international board-certified lactation consultant Jessica Madden, MD, IBCLC, who is medical director at Aeroflow Breastpumps, agrees that breastfeeding parents and children should be able to stay together during hospitalization when it’s feasible. 

Madden points out that most neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) and children’s hospitals allow parents to visit and stay 24/7, do not separate lactating parents and their babies, and already have breastfeeding policies in place. 

“The real changes need to occur with the implementation of breastfeeding policies and lactation policies in adult hospitals, so that hospitalized lactating mothers can have their babies ‘room in’ with them so that they can continue to breastfeed,” she says. 

Benefits for All 

The ABM recommendations reinforce the universal benefits of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding helps protect against diseases that the baby may contract since breast milk is dynamic and can adapt to the environment, says international board-certified lactation consultant Leigh Anne O’Connor, IBCLC, LCCE. 

“When a baby nurses at the breast, the saliva contains bacteria that enters the breast,” she explains. “The breast then ‘manufactures’ antibodies against whatever the bacteria is.” 

Nursing is also calming for both parent and child, O’Connor adds. “To be separated from each other puts undue stress on the mother and her infant,” she says. “And stress is not good when you’re trying to heal.” 

Leigh Anne O’Connor, IBCLC, LCCE

To be separated from each other puts undue stress on the mother and her infant. And stress is not good when you’re trying to heal.

— Leigh Anne O’Connor, IBCLC, LCCE

Lactating parents make more milk when they are able to directly breastfeed their babies, as opposed to being separated for long periods of time and having to exclusively pump, Madden explains. “Infants also benefit from being able to drink fresh breast milk, as it has greater immune properties than milk that has been pumped and stored prior to being ingested,” she adds. 

The paramount benefit of preventing mother-infant separation is clear: keeping parents breastfeeding for longer. But there are more, such as accelerating the healing and recovery of hospitalized and ill mothers. “It’s postulated that they may heal and recover faster when they are with their babies due to an increase in oxytocin, a hormone released while breastfeeding that promotes feelings of calmness and relaxation, and a decrease in stress hormones such as cortisol,” says Madden. 

And hospitals benefit, too. Lactating parents will be more likely to choose to go to hospitals with breastfeeding policies in place. Madden believes that they also will be more likely to recommend breastfeeding-friendly hospitals to their family members and friends.

What This Means For You

If you or your child is hospitalized while you are still breastfeeding, it’s a good idea to bring up the importance of breastfeeding at the very start of the hospital admission process. You also could ask your baby’s pediatrician to write a letter stating the importance of you and your child staying together.Your partner can help and advocate in various ways throughout the hospital stay, such as by making sure you stay well hydrated, washing breast pump parts, and making sure any medications given are compatible with breastfeeding.

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