Breastfeeding the very preterm hospitalized infant: An ethnographic study

Nancy M Hurst, The University of Texas School of Nursing at Houston


Purpose. To develop a greater understanding of the experience—including the thoughts, feelings, and actions—of mothers' initiation and maintenance of lactation within the context of the NICU following the birth of a very preterm infant. Design. Mixed method with dominant focused ethnographic approach. Setting: A 76-bed neonatal intensive care unit in the largest children's hospital located in a large metropolitan city in southeast Texas. Sample. Purposeful sampling resulted in 23 interviews with 14 subjects. Methods. Mixed method design with a dominant qualitative approach combined with a quantitative component to further identify and expand upon the investigation of the population in question. Open-ended semi-structured interviews and fieldwork were used to explore the experience of breastfeeding in the context of the NICU for mothers of very preterm infants. Longitudinal data obtained from each subject included in-depth interviews, demographic and clinical information, milk expression patterns (including pumping frequency, duration, and milk volumes obtained), and scores obtained from the Edinburgh Postpartum Depression Scale (EPDS). Findings. Thematic analysis revealed that mothers of very preterm infants experienced an interruption in the process of becoming a mother, a paradoxical experience related to aspects of their milk expression routines and patterns, and negotiating the NICU environment. Sub-themes of becoming a mother-interrupted included: attribution, separation, connection, and navigation. Additional sub-themes related to the paradoxical experience included: the pump sometimes acting as a wedge or link to the infant; diversionary thoughts/activities during pumping; and perceptions of milk flow/volume. The process of negotiation included the environment, adaptive/maladaptive strategies related to milk expression, motivating factors related to the provision of breast milk, and learning their infant's feeding cues/abilities. EPDS scores did not reveal congruent differences in those mothers scoring high compared to those scoring low. Conclusions. Understanding the experiences of the mothers in this study allows for a better perspective of breastfeeding the very preterm infant in the context of the NICU. Findings from this study validate the difficult and incremental process of attaining maternal identity and the significant burden placed on these women with regards to the provision of breast milk and breastfeeding during their infant's hospitalization.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Hurst, Nancy M, "Breastfeeding the very preterm hospitalized infant: An ethnographic study" (2007). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI3281711.