A typical pregnancy term lasts for about 40 weeks. Babies who are born before the 37th week of pregnancy are considered premature. They often have medical complications if they are born too early, and you have to be extra cautious to take care of them. Doctors generally keep a premature baby in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) to maximize care under a specialized medical professional team. They need extreme care and nutrition, and there is nothing better than breast milk. Your doctor is likely to instruct you on the dos and don’ts of breastfeeding a preterm baby. But as parents, here are a few things you need to know:
Why Is It Important?
Breastfeeding your premature baby is crucial to your infant’s health. Breast milk contains all the necessary nutrients that your baby needs. It also protects them from infections and illnesses. Your milk will be slightly different from full-term mothers to meet your baby’s nutritional needs. It contains more proteins, as your infant needs more protein. Your milk is also filled with more of the enzyme lysozyme, which attacks external bacteria and keeps your baby safe from infections. Your breast milk contains more fats and less lactose because preterm babies have difficulty digesting lactose (1).
Expressing Breast Milk
Expressing breast milk is another term used for collecting breast milk. The sooner you start expressing breast milk, the better it is for your milk supply. If your baby is around 37 weeks old, they will be able to suckle off some breast milk when they need it. However, if your baby is younger, it might be weeks before they can actually breastfeed. Therefore, you need to express milk using a breast pump regularly. It is recommended that you express milk within an hour of your preterm baby’s delivery and continue to do so every 2-4 hours to ensure steady supply (2).
If your baby does not have any major health complications, doctors will encourage you to hold your baby as much as you can. Skin-to-skin contact or kangaroo care, as it is called, establishes a connection with your baby and makes you feel close to them. Your partner can do this too. Kangaroo care helps preterm babies sleep better, regulate their heart rate, reduce stress and pain levels, promote healthy weight gain, and encourages breastfeeding (3).
Tube Feeding Your Infant
If your baby is born earlier than 34 weeks, they might not be able to suckle, swallow, and breathe. Therefore, you might have to feed them through a feeding tube initially. Your doctor and other hospital staff at the neonatal care unit will guide you through it. For premature babies born very early or sick, feeding may be done via an intravenous line where a liquid containing all the essential nutrients is directly fed to the baby’s vein (4).
- Donor Breast Milk
Just like there are blood banks, there are several donor breast milk banks. Some hospitals give you the option to choose donor breast milk if you cannot breastfeed or express breast milk.
Your breast milk might not have the necessary supplements that your newborn needs. Therefore, doctors suggest giving your baby extra calories, protein, calcium, and phosphorus for healthy and strong bone development.
- Formula Milk
You might not be a fan of giving your baby formula milk. But sometimes, doctors suggest that you feed them formula milk to meet their nutritional needs. There are special formulas for preterm babies that are suitable for their specific needs.
You might probably be scared and worried for your premature baby. But your hospital, doctors, and other staff do the best they can to ensure that your baby is safe and healthy. Before you know it, your doctor will give you the green signal to be on your way home with your happy, healthy baby!