Breastfeeding looks different for every mum and bub, especially for preterm or critically ill babies who need extra support, where breast milk can play a vital role in their growth and recovery.

It has always been our mission at Medela to support mums and babies through the life-giving benefits of human milk, through product innovation and education.

To show our support for the efforts of our healthcare professionals and their dedication to mums and their babies, we recently donated two of our Symphony breast pumps, used in hospitals across Australia and the globe, to Sydney Children’s Hospitals Foundation for use in The Grace Centre for Newborn Intensive Care at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead.

We often talk about the benefits of mother’s milk but less often about just how life-saving it can be for sick or premature babies in the newborn intensive care environment.

We hear from Lactation Specialists, Helen and Gabrielle, in the Grace Centre for Newborn Intensive Care at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, who tell us about the importance of providing breast milk to critically ill babies, what inspires them every day to help mums and their critically ill babies, and how COVID-19 has impacted their environment.

The Grace Centre for Newborn Intensive Care treats more than 600 babies a year who are critically unwell. Many of these newborns have complex medical needs and will require surgery or specialist care, which often delays breastfeeding practice. For these babies, considerable extra support needs to be provided for mothers to help them establish and maintain their milk supply, so they can continue to provide breast milk for their sick baby when they return home[1].


Medela: Why did you start working in the NICU?

After finishing our midwifery training, we both developed a keen interest in caring for babies requiring specialised care, as it was unique and very different to nursing adults. Working in NICU, every day is different and provides new and unique challenges. Being able to assist parents in learning to care for and nurture their sick baby is richly rewarding.

Medela: What inspires you every day?

It inspires us to know that we can make a positive difference to the lives of families and babies in our care, by sharing our knowledge with mothers to help make breastfeeding possible. It can be very challenging when babies have complex medical conditions and the practice of feeding is delayed. The fact that babies are small and precious, prompts us to work to the best of our ability to help them heal and overcome hurdles that they often encounter. Furthermore, having children of our own highlights the importance to help sick babies to grow and heal so that they can go home to be loved and nurtured by their own parents and family.

Medela: How does COVID-19 impact your environment?

Like many other places in our society, it has definitely made an impact. It emphasises many practices we already have in place, like thorough handwashing, personal protective gear and other hygiene measures. Within our role, we have helped ensure mothers safety by ensuring they have access to expressing equipment to help them continue providing milk for their sick baby with the required distancing measures in place.

Medela: Why is breast milk so important for vulnerable babies in the NICU?

Breast milk is extremely important for all newborn infants as it provides a precise balance of nutrition, which promotes optimal growth and development. One of the major components of human breast milk is the presence of live antibodies which help provide the baby with protection against harmful pathogens which can cause sickness and disease. Breast milk also contains unique factors which promote growth and healing, this is even more essential for sick infants recovering from major surgery or illness. For preterm infants, human breast milk is essential to help line their porous gut and provide protection, reducing the incidence of NEC (Necrotizing enterocolitis). NEC is an infection of the bowel which causes tissue to die and can have long term health implications.

As well as being beneficial for critically ill babies, expressing milk can also help mums on an emotional level. It is not uncommon for mothers to feel helpless when their baby is in NICU, so providing milk helps them to foster a sense of purpose. We often have mothers remark on how they feel that expressing milk for their baby or breastfeeding is one of the few things they can do to enhance care and promote healing.

1 Sydney Children's Hospital Network, 3 August 2020, Giving critically ill babies the breast care – World Breastfeeding Week, viewed 12 April 2021, []