Breastfeeding your baby in hospital

  • If your baby needs to stay in hospital, it’s natural that you may be worried about how your breastfeeding will be affected. Despite this, it is worthwhile persisting with breastfeeding, as your breastmilk uniquely meets your baby's needs, and it contains protective properties that reduce the chance of infection.

    If your baby cannot feed because they are sick or unable to (e.g. because of surgery), you can express your breastmilk. Providing breastmilk is a special way for you to be involved in your baby's care while they are in hospital and any amount of breastmilk is better than none. 

    Most hospitals have resources available to help and support you with breastfeeding or expressing.

    Breastfeeding in hospital

    Hospitals can be a noisy, busy place, but there should be parent rooms or breastfeeding rooms available if you prefer to breastfeed or express breastmilk in a quieter or more discreet place. If you can’t breastfeed in a quiet room, pull the curtain around your child's bed to create a more private space.

    • If you have been breastfeeding at home, try and maintain familiar routines for your child while they are in hospital. If possible, continue to breastfeed your baby as often as you usually do at home. Weaning your baby at this time is not recommended.
    • If this is the first time you have breastfed, or if your baby has not breastfed for a long time due to illness, it’s OK to ask for extra help or support from the nursing staff.
    • If your child has been asleep, spend a few minutes playing gently with your baby so that they gradually wake up and get ready to feed. Wait for signals from your baby that they are ready before starting to feed them.
    • If you are taking any medications or are concerned about these affecting your baby, please ask the nursing staff.
      There may be times in hospital when your baby's feeding is interrupted or temporarily stopped. The nursing staff caring for your child will do all they can to help you establish or maintain your milk supply until your baby is well enough to breastfeed.

    If you need to leave your baby

    If possible, leave expressed breastmilk for the nurses to feed your baby while you are away from the hospital. Discuss with the nurses about how much milk to leave. Try expressing a little milk after each breastfeed or between feeds (about one and a half hours before the next feed) to build up enough breastmilk supply for the time you are away. Follow the hospital guidelines for the labelling and storage of expressed milk.

    Expressing and storing breastmilk

    If you don’t have a pump, ask the hospital staff if they have one you can use. Some hospitals have manual and electric pumps you can hire or purchase, and electric pumps can also be hired from the Australian Breastfeeding Association.

    When expressing milk for a baby in hospital, it is important to reduce any chance of infection for your baby. Expressing equipment needs to be cleaned at least once a day, preferably after each use. Some hospitals offer disposable equipment that can be washed between feeds using warm soapy water and then thrown out after 24 hours. Check with your hospital about how you should clean the equipment. 

    Personal hygiene is also important – before starting to express, always wash your hands with soap and water and dry them thoroughly.

    After expressing your milk using a pump, seal the bottle with the cap, taking care not to touch the inside of the bottle or lid. Label and refrigerate the milk as soon as you finish expressing. 

    Always feel free to ask for extra help or support in using pumps from the nursing staff.

    Storing breast milk to bring into hospital

    If you need to bring expressed breastmilk into hospital, bring chilled milk within 24 hours of expressing. It should be carried in a small esky or insulated cool bag with ice or a cooler pack to keep the milk cold. Check your hospital’s policy on bringing in frozen or thawed milk from home.

    Maintaining your milk supply

    If your baby is too unwell or unable to breastfeed, express regularly to maintain your supply of breastmilk. 

    • For newborn babies, express at least eight to 10 times a day. You can express as often as every 90 minutes if you want to.
    • If you have missed expressing once or twice in a day, try to express several times close together to bring the total number of expressions up to about six for the day. 
    • The number of expressions needed will be less for an older baby. The best estimate is to express at the same frequency and duration that you would normally breastfeed.

    Being anxious and worried is natural when your baby is unwell, and this may cause a drop in your supply. Expressing milk or feeding your baby often will help stimulate your supply, and trying to relax before expressing or feeding is also helpful. 

    Try not to worry about how much milk you are getting. Even a little breastmilk is helpful for your baby. Ask the nurse for advice if your supply seems to be dropping or you are having problems with expressing milk.

    Re-establishing breastfeeding

    Expressing may not maintain your usual breastmilk supply as effectively as your baby's sucking. Once feeding starts again after your baby’s illness or surgery, frequent breastfeeds will increase your supply so that it matches your baby’s needs once again.

    Look after yourself

    In the anxiety and worry of having a sick baby, it is important to look after yourself. To meet your energy needs, remember to have a sandwich or snack each time you breastfeed or express milk – usually, you can eat your normal range of foods without causing problems for your baby. It is also very important to maintain hydration during the breastfeeding period. 

    Key points to remember

    • Breastmilk is the best source of nutrition for your baby.
    • If your baby cannot breastfeed because they are ill, you can express your milk.
    • Any amount of breastmilk is better than none.
    • There are several helpful specialists available in hospitals to help and support you with breastfeeding or expressing.

    For more information 

    • Kids Health Info fact sheet: Breastfeeding
    • See your Maternal and Child Health Nurse or a lactation consultant.
    • Maternal and Child Health Line ph. 13 22 29 (24-hour service).
    • Australian Breastfeeding Association, Breastfeeding Helpline ph. 1800 686 268.

    Common questions our doctors are asked

    How important is it to sterilise my pumping equipment? 

    Expressing equipment does not need to be sterilised for healthy, full-term babies. If your baby is in hospital, however, it is important to reduce any chance of infection and be diligent about using sterilised equipment when expressing. Expressing equipment needs to be sterilised at least once a day.

    I spend a great deal of time trying to express but only manage to get a few drops of milk. What can I do?

    Do whatever you can to feel relaxed before you try to express. Sit in a quiet area and listen to some relaxing music. If you can’t be near your baby while expressing, try thinking about your baby or look at a photo of them – this will help with the let-down of your milk.

    Being warm also helps, so consider expressing after having a shower or bath, or placing a warm face-washer on your breasts for a short while before starting to express. Speak to your lactation consultant, GP or obstetrician about different supplements and medications that can be used to increase breastmilk supply.

    I have tried very hard to breastfeed my baby in hospital but it is not going well. Can my baby have formula, and will this mean she won’t recover as well?

    The stress of having a baby in hospital can impact on your breastmilk supply, so it is common that feeding doesn’t occur as seamlessly as it may have in the past. There is no evidence to suggest that a baby being fed on a mixture of formula and breastmilk – or formula alone – recovers any slower than a baby being exclusively breastfed.

    Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital Dieticians and Lactation Consultants. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.

    Reviewed January 2019.

    This information is awaiting routine review. Please always seek the most recent advice from a registered and practising clinician.

    Kids Health Info is supported by The Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation. To donate, visit


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