The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit can be a scary place for families and their newborns. Babies’ stays are usually unplanned, and it’s easy for a parent to feel helpless.

But there is one thing new moms can do for their babies in the NICU, and that is to provide vital nutrition through breastfeeding. “Emotionally, it’s the one thing moms feel like they have any control over when they’re in the NICU. It’s the one thing they get to provide for their baby that we can’t do,” says Laura Megna, who’s devoted much of her time and many hours of education and research to become certified as a lactation consultant.

The nurse family liaison coordinator and lactation consultant with UnityPoint Health–Meriter’s NICU, Megna saw a huge need in her unit for better education in lactation. It’s proven that breastmilk is best for a baby, but this back-to-basics need can be challenging when a newborn is in the NICU.

“There are a lot of barriers to successfully breastfeeding when your baby is in the NICU for a variety of reasons,” says Meriter NICU nurse manager Dare Desnoyers. The majority of NICU mothers are completely breast pump-dependent and need regular check-ins. They often face a lot of hurdles in producing enough milk and staying motivated. On top of these struggles, insurance might not provide the right breast pump at this critical time, or staff education might not be sufficient to provide mothers specialized lactation care.

Aware of these barriers, Megna has done more than her job requires. In the four years the 30-year-old has worked in the NICU, Megna has secured funding to bring an internationally renowned nurse researcher into the hospital to train staff on lactation, created Meriter’s most successful support group for NICU parents and is looking for funding to start a breast pump lease/buy program so mothers have better access to a hospital-grade pump during their hospitalization.

“Not only does she have great ideas, she has the wherewithal to go the next step,” says Desnoyers. “She writes grants, she gets funding, she gets support. That’s really kind of going above and beyond any staff nurse that I’ve ever worked with before.”

Megna wrote and received a grant through the Meriter Foundation to bring Dr. Paula Meier, a researcher of preterm breastfeeding, to the hospital to train NICU nurses during a three-day, one-on-one seminar. “We felt like having the nurses all be really knowledgeable was a lot more sustainable than depending on one person,” Megna says.

Megna also considered it her responsibility to provide assistance to families that no nurse can give. She created a once-a-week support group called Supporting Parents in the NICU, or SPIN, in which she connects families who have experienced care in the NICU with those who are currently in the NICU. They meet over lunch on Fridays, and there are guest speakers who cover different topics every week. Bringing the “graduate” families back and connecting them through a Facebook group are efforts that have made the support group successful, Megna says. “Our families like to see healthy kids that look like healthy kids and know that they’re going to get there eventually,” she says. “They’re hearing advice from people who have been through it. I can tell them what I know, but it’s just a different level when it’s parent to parent.”

Megna coordinates this group on top of her 12-hour shifts as a full-time staff nurse, and she’s also part of a Vermont Oxford Network Quality Improvement collaborative that focuses on improving patient and family outcomes in nutrition and care of the “micropreemie.”

“Sometimes you can have great ideas, but if they don’t go anywhere, they don’t mean anything,” says Desnoyers. “That’s one of the great things about her—she gets in there and she gets things done.”

It’s just part of her responsibility as a caregiver, Megna says.

“It’s really hard to be a staff nurse and see the things that need to be changed and not feel like you have the power to change them. The world of medicine is ever changing, and not every family is the same. I’m always looking for areas of needs and improvement.”