You’ve probably heard the conventional wisdom before: for mothers who are pumping while away from their babies, it’s helpful to have a photo, blanket, or another item that helps foster connection and therefore help with milk production. But what if we took this a step further, and parents could see a real-time live-stream video of their baby? Early research shows this can have a meaningful impact on pumping.
For families with children in the hospital, multiple studies have found that viewing their patient on a webcam can noticeably impact milk production. This is great news given the known benefits of human milk for preterm and hospitalized infants. The fact that parents viewing their child on a webcam can noticeably impact milk production is also great news for hospitals, who now have yet another way to better support families in meeting satisfaction goals.
Pumping for a Baby in the Hospital
Having a hospitalized child is difficult for families in so many ways – and one of these is feeding. Providing milk while a baby is hospitalized can be a rewarding experience for some moms, but it can also be demanding, unfamiliar, and frustrating (Gianni et al., 2018).
NICU moms may experience barriers that interfere with milk production, including:
- Physical separation of mother and baby
- The inability of the baby to latch or directly breastfeed, given illness or prematurity
- A delay in the onset of milk production with medically complicated births
- Stress and anxiety
With these and other challenges in mind, it’s vital that families receive plenty of lactation support to help them meet their goals. Any interventions possible to help with maternal milk production can have significant downstream effects since ‘mother’s own milk’ has specific health benefits for preterm and sick babies.
How Bedside Cameras Help with Pumping: A Research Rundown
As hospital webcams have recently gained popularity, we’ve also seen a handful of studies connecting the dots between bedside cameras and maternal milk production. Most of this is qualitative research that describes parents’ experiences, so more quantitative studies are needed to measure these effects.
Let’s take a look at a few studies:
In 2017, a Scottish NICU research team interviewed 25 NICU parents to see how live-streaming video impacted the transition to parenthood (Kerr et al.). This qualitative inquiry found that mothers believed the video technology helped them “be more responsive to their baby’s needs, and this included responding physically through the production of breast milk.” The authors noted that mothers’ viewing their baby on camera fostered a sense of “proximity” with the baby that seemed to encourage the letdown reflex.
In 2021, researchers from a Level IV NICU in the US took a slightly different approach: they investigated how “virtual visits” via bedside webcam impacted families’ experiences as well as feeding type at discharge compared to families without video (Weber et al.). The results of the 100 participating families showed that despite similar breastmilk initiation rates, babies were more likely to receive breast milk at discharge in the group of parents using video visits (83% vs. 66%, p = 0.03). Likewise, families who viewed their babies on camera showed significantly less decline in breastfeeding intention over time compared to non-camera-users.
Also in 2021, researchers interviewed 40 parents about their experiences with webcams in four different NICUs across Germany (Reimer et al., 2021). “Positive influence on breast milk expression” was a central theme that arose: mothers described how they could pump “more often and in larger volumes when watching their child through the webcam.” The authors elaborated that this effect was reported more among mothers who were hospitalized themselves or had limited mobility postpartum.
Another recent German study focused specifically on how NICU cameras impact milk expression and lactation (Hoyt-Austin et al., 2022). Interviews with parents (n = 17) revealed four major themes, one of which was “videoconferencing provides motivation for and helps with expressing milk.” Mothers reported that a live visual of their baby while pumping:
- was “very helpful”
- reinforced a sense of purpose
- encouraged them to pump more frequently
- resulted in greater milk volume output while viewing their baby on camera
- was more relaxing, enjoyable, and comfortable thanks to the video stream
More research is on its way. Lactation expert Diane Spatz, PhD, RN-BC, FAAN, has found a connection between NICU cameras and milk expression. She said in an interview that in future research, she hopes to quantify milk output and caloric density among moms who pump while viewing their child on camera.
How Do Cameras Help Moms Pump More?
Most researchers seem to agree that oxytocin may be the key hormone at play for mothers who make more milk while viewing their babies on camera. Oxytocin is the hormone associated with milk letdown or the milk ejection reflex. Interestingly, oxytocin is also associated with maternal-infant bonding.
Kerr et al. (2017) proposed oxytocin as a common thread since cameras seemed to stimulate bonding and milk letdown. Similarly, Reimer et al. (2021) noted that viewing their baby on camera “reinforced a feeling of intimacy and emotional well-being, which seemed to stimulate the expression of breast milk.” Hoyt-Austin et al. (2022) found that parents who viewed their babies on camera felt “more of a bond.”
Mother-infant interactions like snuggling and skin-to-skin time help increase oxytocin production. But for mothers who are physically separated from their babies or have children not medically stable enough for cuddling, even just seeing or thinking of their baby can help boost oxytocin, in turn encouraging pumping output.
Another theory behind cameras supporting milk production is that parents feel more motivated to pump more frequently and adhere to their pumping plan. Hoyt-Austin et al. (2022) found increased milk expression motivation as a central theme in their survey, with parents visually inspired and reminded to pump every time they saw their baby on camera. Given the importance of pumping “early and often” to help NICU moms make enough milk, any intervention that helps motivate them to pump is worthwhile.
Cameras as an “Important Tool” in the Breastfeeding Journey
Today, hospitals face a paradox: how do you provide excellent care to patients and support their parents amidst staffing shortages and budget cuts? While we know nothing replaces hands-on help from expert NICU staff, hospitals can still reap the benefits of embracing technologies that facilitate pumping and milk production.
As researchers from UC Davis concluded in their study, “the potential implications of televisitation to support breastfeeding and provision of breast milk to infants are promising and may perhaps serve as an important tool in helping to sustain breastfeeding in the NICU.”
These tools are essential because when it comes to “liquid gold,” every drop counts!