Breastfeeding Your Preemie

Born at just 33 weeks, my twin boys seemed tiny and fragile. When I saw them for the first time in their isolates, my heart ached with concern for their welfare. I wanted to do everything I could to help them become healthy and strong. A lactation consultant taught me how to use a breast pump, since my twins were too weak to breastfeed and needed to be fed through a tube.

At first I wasn’t so sure I wanted to pump. It was time consuming and seemed complicated. But after learning that breast milk is the best food for a premature infant, I became determined to give pumping and nursing a try.

Boosts Brain Growth

Breast milk plays an important role in brain growth, especially for preemies. A study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that breast milk can actually accelerate brain-stem growth in premature infants. Elizabeth O’Hara, mother to Kassidy born at 28 weeks, from Victoria, B.C., relates, “I pumped for my daughter because I felt she was at a disadvantage having been born so early, and breast milk contains all the nutrients needed for optimum brain development.”

Offers Protection

Human milk also offers preemies protection from illness. Premature babies are often born without sufficient immunoglobulins, which are key in fighting infections. The only way a preemie can receive immunoglobulins after birth is through breast milk. In addition, human milk supplies preemies with antibodies that help shield them from disease. The make-up of human milk is easier on a preemie’s kidneys than formula, and is easier on their immature digestive systems as well.

Breast milk made by a mother who gives birth prematurely is higher in protein, chloride, iron and fatty acids than milk made by mothers of full-term babies. Put simply, the milk made by the mother of a preemie is custom tailored to fit the baby’s immediate needs. So now that you know the benefits of nursing your preemie, how do you get started? The following three steps can help the mother of a premature baby fulfill her goal to breastfeed.

Step One: Pump Away

Babies born before 34 weeks, or who have special health circumstances, may not be able to suckle right away. Pumping breast milk, and then feeding it to the baby through a tube, is usually the next best option. Pumping early and often is essential for a mother to establish a strong milk supply.

Wendy Steele, mother to twins born at 29 weeks, from Portland, Ore., says, “I started pumping the same day I gave birth to the twins. The nurses instructed me to pump every three to four hours and my milk came in two days later.”

Some mothers may be discouraged when they first start pumping and all they get is tiny drops. This is normal. When I first pumped for my twin boys, I felt silly storing the few drops that came out and bringing them to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurses.
However, I continued to pump every three hours and it wasn’t long before I was pumping bottles full of milk.

Step Two: Start Socializing

Once your baby begins gaining weight steadily and can spend more time out of her isolate, she may be ready to try social breastfeeding. Social breastfeeding is a way of introducing your preemie to your breasts.

Place your baby at your breast and allow her to nuzzle and nipple at will. Don’t worry about whether she is getting any milk or not. The goal is not to breastfeed your baby, but to familiarize her with your feel and smell.

“The first time I put Kassidy to my breast, she was only 30 weeks old so she didn’t have the sucking reflex yet,” relates O’Hara. “I put my nipple in her mouth for a few minutes and that was it, but it was an absolutely amazing feeling.”

Social breastfeeding prepares your baby to nurse while also providing her with skin-to-skin contact. This vital element of touch helps your preemie regulate her temperature, oxygen levels and heart rate.

Step Three: Work Through Challenges

Learning to latch on and breastfeed can be difficult for preemies born before 36 weeks, because many have not mastered their suck-swallow-breathe reflex like full-term newborns. Jatana Horn, who gave birth to Eiley at 35 weeks, from Garner, N.C., says, “Several times while nursing, Eiley would suck and swallow so much that she would lose her breath and then she would stop and have to actually think to breathe.”

Mothers who have a full milk supply will often encounter problems with their baby choking, if more milk than the baby can swallow comes out. If you have this problem, Anne Smith, IBCLC, suggests pumping your breasts for a few minutes before each nursing session to slow down the flow.

The key to overcoming breastfeeding challenges is to have patience and get help from a lactation consultant in the hospital or in the community, says Kennedy. The rewards will make up for the early hardships.

Jen Grinnell, mother to Cooper born at 35 weeks, from South Natick, Mass., relates, “In those first few weeks, I felt breastfeeding was pretty stressful. But now that Cooper and I have established a healthy breastfeeding relationship, I absolutely feel it was worth it.”

Learning to breastfeed a preemie is a worthwhile goal. With a bit of determination, both you and your preemie can enjoy the health benefits and bonding that breastfeeding has to offer.

Christine Krogue is a proud mom of three sons, and owner of Giggle Toes, a home-based company that sells soft sole leather baby shoes. Check out her website at

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