Breast milk for your baby on the Special Care Baby Unit

Information for patients

Obstetrics and gynaecology

After the birth of your baby

Congratulations, your baby has been born. It is a worrying time when your baby needs to go to the Special Care Baby Unit.

It is natural as parents to want to help your baby and you may feel quite helpless at this time. One of the best ways to help your baby is to give your baby breast milk.

Even if you have chosen to formula feed your baby, we would encourage you to express your milk.

Your milk helps your baby grow and develop and protects them against infections.

The value of breast milk

Breast milk has been shown to:

  • Greatly reduces the risk of serious, life threatening gut infections in pre-term babies
  • Be tolerated by a pre term baby’s gut, and early breast milk feeds can be introduced to help protect the gut
  • Protect your baby against chest infections
  • Protect your baby against ear infections

Premature babies have not been able to complete their development and breast milk helps your baby’s:

  • Brain development
  • Eye development
  • Gut to mature

In the long term breast milk also helps lower your baby’s risk of:

  • Obesity
  • Insulin dependent diabetes
  • Eczema and allergies

Colostrum is the first milk that all mothers produce after birth.

Breastfeeding your baby in SCBU

In the early days and weeks your baby may not be able to feed directly from your breast. Until this time you can express your milk to give to your baby to help them grow and develop.

Premature babies slowly develop their sucking skills from about 32 weeks or sometimes even later.

Until your baby is able to breastfeed well your baby will be given milk feeds through a gastric tube (a tube that is passed through baby’s nose or mouth going into their stomach).

When can I start expressing?

You are encouraged to express as soon as possible after birth, ideally within the first two hours. The sooner you get started the better it is for you to carry on making milk for your baby in the long term.

Your midwife will give you your ‘Liquid Gold’ pack if your baby is likely to go to SCBU. This is so you can start hand expressing your milk straight away.

Collect your expressed breastmilk in the feeding syringe provided and then it can be taken to SCBU for your baby.

Why hand express?

  • Colostrum is quite sticky, and appears only as drops; it is difficult to suck out with a pump so needs to be ‘milked out’ by hand.
  • If you become engorged you can relieve pressure in your breasts.
  • Increases milk production when used before and after expressing by pump.

How to hand express breastmilk

  1. Have a sterile container/oral syringe to collect the milk.
  2. Have baby near or something that reminds you of baby.
  3. Gently but firmly massage your breasts. Then roll nipple between finger and thumb.
  4. Cup your breast and place your thumb and finger about 2-3 cm from the base of the nipple.
  5. Using your thumb and the rest of your fingers in a C shape, gently compress this area – this shouldn’t hurt.
  6. Release the pressure and then repeat again and again, building up a rhythm. Drops of colostrum will appear or milk will begin to flow. It may take a few minutes.
  7. When the flow slows, rotate your fingers and thumb around the breast and repeat compress-release rhythm.
  8. When the flow slows on one breast change to the other breast. Express each breast 2-3 times. 

Try to avoid sliding your fingers over your skin as friction like this can make you sore.

When to start using a breast pump

Once you are expressing around 10ml you may want to start using a pump. A member of staff will show you how to set up and use the breast pump. Remember to always hand express before using a pump. This helps with hormones for milk production and getting your milk flowing.

Using the electric pump

Wash your hands before expressing.

  1. Push the white valve membrane onto the yellow valve head, push the valve head onto the connector, screw the bottle onto the connector, insert the tubing into the connector.
  2. Place breast shield(s) over the breast(s) making sure nipple(s) central in the funnel.
  3. Set the suction to minimum.
  4. Turn on the pump and the stimulation phase begins, lasts for 2 minutes then switches to expressing phase (if milk starts to flow earlier press the right hand override button to change to expressing phase sooner).
  5. Increase the suction control until it feels slightly uncomfortable then turn it down to comfort level. This is the right suction strength for you. Expressing should not be painful.
  6. Turn off pump before removing breast shield.
  7. If single pumping express each breast changing to the other breast when the flow slows down. Express each breast 2-3 times (20-30 mins).
  8. If double pumping it may help to take a short pause form time to time, massage breasts then restart. Double pumping is best and also saves time.
  9. Take kit apart, wash in hot soapy water, rinse and place in sterilising solution.

When is the best time to express?

The very best time is when you see your baby or just after cuddling your baby. Skin to skin contact with your baby helps you to keep making milk for your baby.

At other times have something to remind you of baby; a photo to look at or an item of clothing to smell (smell is a powerful sense that can boost your hormones).

There are no set times. Aim to express at least 8 times a day with at least one time being during the night. this helps with your milk production for the next day). Some mothers space pumping times out throughout the day, others do 2-3 expressions within a short space of time as little as an hour apart. It is best not to leave gaps of more than 6 hours.

Making a good milk supply

After your babies birth you will start to produce small amounts of a Colostrum from your breasts. This is a thick, yellow sticky milk sometimes referred to as ‘liquid gold’. It is produced specifically for your babies needs and will help your baby to fight infections, support their immune systems and help their gut function. It is also full of vitamins and minerals and helps your baby to grow and develop.

As many pre-term or sick babies on the neonatal unit can not start to feed straight away then small amounts of colostrum can be placed into your babies cheeks where it will be absorbed until they are able to start oral feeds ensuring they receive all the benefits of ‘liquid gold’.

It is important that you express very regularly in order that you baby has a constant supply of colostrum. The best way to express colostrum is by hand expressing your colostrum into the oral syringes provided in the ‘liquid gold packs’ available on the maternity and neonatal unit.

Expressing when at home

You are welcome to use the pumps on SCBU at any time. Whilst your baby remains in hospital you may be able to loan an electric pump from SCBU free of charge.

The midwifery teams also loan out pumps for up to two weeks (you must also be receiving midwifery care and these are also free).

The Children’s Centres have a pump loan scheme too.

For further information or to find your nearest children's centre contact Family Information Service on 0800 0730230.

Storing milk

In the first day or two after birth oral syringes can be used to store small amounts of breast milk. As your milk volumes increase use the sterile storage bottles provided by the postnatal ward and SCBU.

Unless milk is to be used straight away freeze it immediately. There is a refrigerator on the postnatal ward and both a refrigerator and freezer on SCBU.

When bringing frozen milk in from home bring it in a cool bag and place it in the freezer on SCBU without letting it defrost.

Remember to label your milk with your baby's name, and the time and date of expression.

Where to find further help

Special Care Baby Unit

01709 424488
01709 424629


0500 618140

Local breastfeeding support

Breastfeeding drop-in clinic
Every Thursday from 1.30pm to 3pm
Meg's room, B floor, Rotherham Hospital
No appointment needed

National breastfeeding support

National Breastfeeding Helpline

0300 100 0212

National Childbirth Trust

0300 330 0771

Breastfeeding Network

0300 100 0210

Association of Breastfeeding Mothers

0300 330 5453

Did this information help you?

  • Page last reviewed: 21 January 2023
  • Next review due: 21 January 2024