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The Unique Struggle of Breastfeeding Premature Babies

breastfeeding infant health

For the estimated 15 million preterm babies born around the world each year (500,000 in the United States), breastfeeding is just one of the many unique struggles they face. Helping premature babies get breast milk ensures they are given nutrients and immunities that will help them thrive in those early fragile months. Yet knowing those benefits isn’t enough - successfully breastfeeding a premature baby is easier said than done, and success starts with ensuring mothers of premature babies are supported in every way possible.

Why Breast Milk is Important for Preterm Babies

When a premature baby is delivered, they are taken to the NICU where they are placed in a safe, protected environment. Depending on the circumstances, contact with babies is limited to short periods of being held, and sitting beside the incubator (the see-through box that keeps babies warm and surrounded by clean, humid air). Some babies are able to breastfeed directly on the mother’s breast, while others have to be fed via bottle or tube.

Breast milk is important for every single baby - but it’s especially important for premature babies to receive an exclusive human milk diet. Preterm babies are at greater risk for various types of illness and infection, and micro preemies (babies born before 26 weeks) are especially at risk for developing necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). NEC damages intestinal tissue and can cause infection and shock. Occurrence increases when babies are given non-human milk.

Exclusive human milk is the best way to prevent NEC as well as other types of illness and infection. Research from the National Coalition for Infant Health shows that micro preemies fed an exclusive human milk diet reduces mortality by 75% and reduces occurrence of NEC by 77%. Additionally, a study done by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences showed that breastfeeding provides protection from illnesses and infection, and is protective into adulthood.

With all the challenges premature babies could face, it’s important to start them off with nutrition that will help them thrive.

How You Can Ensure Successful Breastfeeding With a Premature Baby

Those early months of caring for a preemie can be incredibly difficult for parents, but especially for mothers. You might feel exhausted, overwhelmed, and experience a range of emotions, including depression, fear, anger or even guilt. Unfortunately, along with all of these emotional challenges, you may find breastfeeding is a struggle as well. Milk can be slow to come in, and while your baby is in the NICU, you will have to pump to establish and sustain your breastmilk supply.

Despite the challenges, providing your baby with breastmilk is one of the best and most empowering things you can do for yourself and your baby. Your breast milk is full of nutrients and immunities that only you can provide. While doctors and nurses will be doing their best to provide your baby with care, you’re the only one able to provide nutrition that’s perfectly designed by your body for your baby.

Here is what mothers of preterm babies can do to increase their chances of breastfeeding successfully:

Start Pumping Right Away
Mothers of preterm babies should start pumping as soon as possible if their baby is unable to start feeding directly from the breast. You’ll want your baby to get colostrum (the nutrient-dense milk that comes in before breast milk), as it’s easily digestible. Milk can be delayed coming in with premature birth, but it will eventually come if you keep pumping. Moist-heat applied to the breasts prior to pumping or nursing can enhance your body’s natural let-down reflex by helping to increase circulation and stimulate oxytocin, the hormone responsible for let-down. (Rachel’s Remedy Breastfeeding Relief Packs provide wearable moist-heat and cooling relief - buy them here)
Set and Stick to a Pumping or Breastfeeding Routine
Depending on the circumstances, it might be a while before you’re able to regularly put your baby to your breast. Sticking to a pumping schedule will help ensure you are able to establish your breast milk supply so that you can provide the amount of milk your baby needs. The general recommendation is to pump every 2-3 hours.
As your body establishes its supply, you may become engorged. Mothers with babies in the NICU tend to suffer from engorgement because their baby isn’t able to demand regular feedings. This is especially challenging in the evenings, when you’ll likely sleep through feedings. Use moist heat prior to pumping and cool packs after pumping to help prevent and relieve engorgement and soreness. (Rachel’s Remedy Breastfeeding Relief Packs provide wearable moist-heat and cooling relief - buy them here)
Communicate with Your Baby’s Doctor
Make sure your doctor and your baby’s healthcare providers know you wish to breastfeed your baby. While your baby may need to be fed via bottle or tube in those early days, weeks or even months, your healthcare providers need to know you want to get your baby to your breast as soon as possible. Again, true breastfeeding might be a challenge for a premature baby, but there are special tube feeding systems mothers can attach to their breast or finger that help support breastfeeding when your baby is ready. Communication is important, and hospitals have staff to support your breastfeeding goals.

Although breastfeeding may at times feel like an added struggle placed on top of an already challenging time, just remember that it will get easier. You are providing your baby with the best possible nourishment to help him or her grow and thrive. You can do it mama!

As always, we recommend discussing all of this with your doctor and an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC).  

Rachel’s Remedy Breastfeeding Relief Packs help increase milk supply and help prevent and relieve common breastfeeding problems like clogged ducts, mastitis, engorgement, nipple pain, milk blisters and other discomforts. They provide moist-heat or cooling relief that fits into any bra while keeping clothes dry and moms hands-free. We recommend moms-to-be have them ready for use in their hospital bags so they are prepared to start breastfeeding successfully with Rachel’s Remedy.

Buy Rachel’s Remedy Breastfeeding Relief Packs here.

World Health Organization
Miracle Babies
La Leche League International
National Coalition for Infant Health

Image: (c) praisaeng

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