"I have faith in my milk": the meaning of milk for mothers of very low birth weight infants hospitalized in the neonatal intensive care unit

J Hum Lact. 2013 Aug;29(3):359-65. doi: 10.1177/0890334413484552. Epub 2013 Apr 18.


Background: Mothers who deliver a premature infant often choose to provide milk because it is the "one thing that only the mother can do" to optimize her infant's outcome, helps mothers feel a connection with their infants, and helps relieve the guilt associated with the preterm birth.

Objective: The purpose of this study was to describe the meaning of milk for mothers who are providing milk for their very low birth weight (VLBW; < 1500 g) infants hospitalized in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Methods: Using a qualitative descriptive design, in-depth semistructured interviews were conducted with 23 mothers of VLBW infants hospitalized in a level III NICU. Mothers were asked to share their perceptions about what providing milk meant to them.

Results: Mothers had faith in the healing properties of their milk and equated providing milk with "giving life" to their infants, mitigating the effects of complications, keeping their infants healthy and stable, and helping themselves address the feelings of failure and guilt associated with the premature birth. Mothers' faith in their milk to achieve these outcomes was a maternal motivator to continue pumping, even for mothers who had not intended to provide milk or who experienced the paradox of disliking pumping but wanting to provide their milk.

Conclusion: The experiences of these mothers reflect the importance of acknowledging mothers' faith in the healing properties of their milk as a motivating factor for sustaining lactation while coping with the stress and anxiety inherent during the infant's NICU hospitalization.

Keywords: breast pumping; breastfeeding; faith; human milk; lactation care; meaning of milk; neonatal intensive care unit; premature infant; very low birth weight.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Breast Milk Expression / psychology*
  • Female
  • Guilt
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Infant, Premature
  • Infant, Very Low Birth Weight*
  • Intensive Care Units, Neonatal*
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Milk, Human*
  • Mother-Child Relations / psychology*
  • Mothers / psychology*
  • Motivation
  • Qualitative Research