Premature infants or preemies are babies born before their due dates. For some, this may be just a few weeks early without much effect on your baby’s health or size. For others, a premature infant may be weighed in terms of grams, not pounds. Regardless of the circumstances, breastfeeding and providing your child with breast milk is still a wonderful way to help your preemie get the nutrition they need to grow strong.
A new mom’s body is amazing in so many ways. Not only for giving birth to a beautiful little one, but also in making the milk that your premature baby needs. Breast milk moms make for premature babies has been shown to have higher components of fats, vitamins, calories, and proteins – all components your baby needs to grow stronger. Also, a mom’s milk has immune cells that can protect a preemie’s delicate immune system.
Sometimes preemies are simply too small to be able to nurse at the breast after birth. Babies do not develop the reflex to suck, swallow, and breathe to breastfeed until they are about 32 weeks’ gestation. Therefore, a baby born before this time may not be able to breastfeed just yet. Premature babies also often require a stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for extra support for growth. As a result, babies may be bottle-fed or fed via a tube in their nose that goes to their stomach. This allows the NICU staff to track what your baby is eating, how their body is tolerating the food, and if your baby is gaining enough weight based on what they’re eating.
Of course, this presents a challenge for you as a mom who’s ready to breastfeed. Instead, you may need to pump your breast milk at this early stage and provide it to the hospital staff or give to your baby via a bottle.
Breastfeeding is a supply-and-demand undertaking, and if your little one does provide the demand in the first few weeks, it’s possible you could have supply concerns as your baby develops. If your little one isn’t eating very much at each feeding or you aren’t yet able to feed baby at the breast, try incorporating pumping sessions into your day. You can do them at regular intervals, such as every three to four hours (give yourself a break to catch a few ZZZ’s at night).
Because your baby is likely very small as a preemie, their small belly may not take in much milk during a feeding. However, they will probably feed more frequently until they grow larger and may put more time between feedings.
Sometimes preemies respond better to a breastfeeding hold called the cross-cradle hold. This position helps support your baby’s head while making the breast easily accessible until your baby is strong enough not to tire from feeding. To perform this hold, place pillows on your lap or use a nursing pillow. Lay your baby across your lap so that you are chest to chest. If nursing with the left breast, hold your baby’s head in your right hand and use your left to support your breast as you offer it to your baby. To view images of this hold, visit La Leche League International.