Help and Advice on Breastfeeding Premature Babies

Breastfeeding a premature baby is one of the most important things a mother can do for her child. Indeed, it is quite normal for a healthcare team to encourage mum to breastfeed after giving birth to a premature child, even if doing so was not part of her original plan. It turns out that breastmilk is the best kind of food for a premature baby who did not fully develop in the womb.

Breast milk contains hormones and growth factors that will help the baby’s digestive tract fully develop. It also contains the extra calories, vitamins, proteins, and other nutrients premature babies need to grow. Tying it all together is the fact that breastmilk is much easier to digest than infant formula. A premature baby who is successfully breastfed tends to do much better during the early stages of development than one who is fed primarily with infant formula.

We should note that breastfeeding is usually reserved for babies born at or after 34 weeks. Prior to 34 weeks, it is up to the healthcare team to determine whether the premature baby is capable of consuming breastmilk. If not, the team will devise another means of feeding the child that is best for him or her at that time.

A Learning Process for Both

Breastfeeding a newborn baby seems so natural that we expect every mother to just be able to do it. Yet it turns out that breastfeeding is not as simple as that. Even when a baby is born full-term, mum can suffer from all sorts of anxiety that prevents her body from producing enough milk. Furthermore, some babies may have difficulty feeding if they sense that mum is anxious. When a baby is premature, additional complications may make breastfeeding more challenging. But the new mother should not give up.

Though your own experiences may be somewhat different, the average mother of a premature baby can expect the following:

  • Expressing Milk – The healthcare team is likely to encourage a new mother to express some milk prior to beginning breastfeeding for the first time. This accomplishes several things. First of all, it tells the mother’s body that milk production needs to get under way. Second, it prevents the baby from being overwhelmed by too much milk on the first feeding.
  • Initial Response – In most cases, it shouldn’t take much once a baby is laid on his/her mother’s chest to begin moving toward the breast. This is something that is innate in infants. However, a premature baby may find this initial contact to be a struggle. An attending nurse or midwife will help guide the mother through this first contact.
  • Taking the Milk – While most babies are more than capable of taking mum’s nipple in the mouth and sucking right away, some premature babies tend to lick the nipple at first. This is no cause for concern. Baby will eventually figure this out naturally on his or her own.

A premature baby may need to be directed toward the breast until he or she is strong enough to move directly and independently. This is to be expected. Furthermore, it may take several feedings before the little one has the confidence to continue feeding until full.

When a Baby Cannot Breastfeed

Should a premature baby not be able to breastfeed because of size, early term or any sort of complication, there are options. The best option is for mum to express her milk which can then be fed to the child. Expressing milk is also good for mum in that it will help her lose weight and strengthen the bond between her and her baby, even though breastfeeding is not yet taking place.

Mum can express her milk using an electric or manual breast pump. Some hospitals keep pumps on hand to loan to mothers while they are in the hospital. If that’s not possible, pumps can be purchased by the mother.

What happens if mum cannot produce enough breastmilk by herself? Again, there are options:

  • Donor Milk – Some hospitals maintain milk banks supplied with breast milk from donors. Rest assured that donors are carefully screened to ensure that their breastmilk is both safe and nutrient-rich. This is the second best option to mum’s own milk.
  • Infant Formula – Although infant formula is not nearly as beneficial as breast milk, it does provide adequate nutrition for infants of all ages. A premature baby may need a special formulation depending on the current stage of gastrointestinal development. Parents can rest assured that the healthcare team will talk things over with them should it be necessary to feed the baby with infant formula.
  • Breastmilk Fortifiers – In cases where mum can express some milk but not enough, the healthcare team may recommend what are known as breast milk fortifiers. These fortifiers are simply special kinds of infant formulas that make up for the nutrition lacking in the mother’s milk supply. Mum will still be able to breastfeed or provide milk through expression while the fortifiers act as a supplement.

Even if a premature baby cannot breastfeed right away, chances are things will improve over time. This is why it is so important for mothers to express their milk even if they are not breastfeeding. If milk is not expressed, the mother’s body will gradually shut down the production process to the point of the milk supply drying up. At that point, it would be impossible for breastfeeding to take place.

Breastfeeding premature babies is possible. In fact, experts prefer it that way. Breastmilk is the best food a new baby can consume in the first several months of life. It’s even more important for premature babies to help encourage rapid and healthy development.

Additional Resources

Yes they can, but It depends on how early your baby was born.  Doctors recommend breastfeeding but only when you and your baby are ready.

Your baby will at first be tube fed, until he/she develops sucking reflex.  Doctors may advise to intermittently try breastfeeding as your premature baby gets older.

From around 32 weeks you baby will be able to breastfeed.  Although at first you may need to combine tune fed, as your baby may take must smaller amounts from your breast.

Yes, but it is recommended to gradually build up the amount you breastfeed as first it could be slightly difficult for the baby and mother.

Your breastmilk contains antibiotics which will help your baby’s immune system to naturally fight off viruses and bacteria.  Breastfeeding can also help with the bonding process between mother and baby.

Feeding your baby breastmilk sooner than later will help with your babies muscles to suck, there for makes it much easier for baby.  Your breast milk is more of a natural way to feed your baby.

As you start searing away from being tube fed to breastmilk this process will take time and at first it may be small amounts.  Don’t let this put you off, keep at it as gradually your baby will start to take more breastmilk over being tube fed.

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