How to Breastfeed a Premature Baby

Prematurity is more prevalent than many think. The rate of premature births or births that happen before 37 weeks of gestational age is a little over 12%. If you are the parent of a premature baby it can be very scary but the following tips and advice will get you on the right track.

What happens when your baby is born prematurely?

Often for the first several weeks of life your baby will be taken care of by a team in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, NICU. Many parents feel helpless during this time. One thing that a mother can provide that is extremely beneficial for a premature baby is breast milk.

Why breast milk is important—even for premature babies

Breast milk is easier for babies to digest and premature babies have even more sensitive digestive systems than other newborns. Providing breast milk without an infant on the other end can prove to be very frustrating.

Pumping breast milk for a preemie is inevitable

Nature made a supply-demand set up for the collection of breast milk. The more the baby sucks the more milk is produced. With a premature baby, often you will not be directly nursing the baby for weeks or even months. During this time you must pump milk and you must do it often.

Getting a quality breast pump

The first thing that is recommended is to have a high quality pump. Hospitals often provide top of the line hospital-grade breast pumps after delivering; also available thereafter, is the option to rent a breast pump when you are released from the maternity clinic.

Do get a high quality pump as it makes a big difference. A double pump will save you time so that is recommended as well. You need to pump as frequently as a newborn would eat, or approximately every two hours.

Slowed breast milk production is normal, just keep pumping

Remember when you first start to pump—just like when you first nurse a newborn—it will take hours to days for your milk to come in. Don’t be discouraged, just keep on your schedule. Pump both sides at each session and pump for no less than 15 minutes.

How to handle pumped breast milk

Your milk can be stored in sterile bottles and brought to the NICU for use that day. Also, you can freeze breast milk in a deep freezer for up to 6 months.

When your baby has reached 32-34 weeks gestation the NICU may suggest you try breastfeeding. This will mainly be for learning as the baby will be too weak to get all their nutrition from breast feeding.

How to express breast milk to a prematurely born baby

When you take your baby home you will keep the same pumping schedule but this time offer breast first to the baby before feeding with a bottle and before pumping. You may need to express a little milk first so baby doesn’t choke on a rush of milk.

One way to help manage your schedule is to offer baby breast, then bottle feed, and while you are bottle feeding express milk with the pump.

How? A simple tip is to purchase a sports bra and cut holes for the double pump to fit through. The breast pumps will stay secure while your hands are free bottle feeding the baby.

Find out how much your baby is getting

Another tip is to rent a baby weigh scale so you can see how much milk your baby is getting from your breast feeding sessions. These scales can measure down to the ounce. Once you see your baby is getting enough from you alone you can switch from bottle and breastfeeding to 100% breastfeeding.

It can be very difficult to breastfeed any newborn and especially a preemie, but breastfeeding is very beneficial especially to premature babies.