All babies born prompt a list of worries, but premature babies can cause even more stress. Born before 37 weeks gestation preemies are even smaller and more delicate than full term babies who are born between 39-41 weeks. Premature babies or preemies can weight anywhere between 3-5lbs when born, compared to the weight of a full term baby which is anywhere between 6-10lbs. Premature babies come with a host of extra health problems too; underdeveloped organs like the lungs making breathing harder or underdeveloped kidneys leading to toxic systems. Preemies can also have a weak immune system or underdeveloped intestines and lack healthy bacteria making nutrients absorption challenging. With all these developmental delays you might be asking yourself, can I even breastfeed when I have a preemie? Will the baby be able to digest breast milk? Are they ready to nurse when they’re so little? The amazing answer is yes, but like care for a preemie, breastfeeding may be more detailed than you expected.
The good news is the mother’s body immediately after childbirth goes into breast milk production mode. Whether the baby is on time or earlier than expected you’re automatically making breast milk, perfectly formulated for a premature baby. Breast milk made for premature babies is higher in protein for muscle production, immunities for the underdeveloped immune system and perfectly digestible fats for brain growth. Premature babies that are breastfed are seen to have fewer infections than babies that are formula fed. This is because breast milk contains pro-biotics, healthy bacteria that keeps the intestines from becoming inflamed and helps the GI tract digest breast milk earlier. Breast milk is perfect for preemies.
Preemies also need to be fed and often, every 2-3hours. Preemies are in the infant stage of growth longer than full term babies which means feeding, especially breastfeeding, should come quickly and easily. Preemies are supposed to reserve energy for growing, done while sleeping, so waking the preemie to feed is acceptable, in fact it’s encouraged. Heavy crying from the preemie can waste precious energy. Preemies might not cry heavily either because of their weaker states so a small whimper, potentially overlooked by the caregiver, is their sign of hunger or discomfort. It’s a better idea to feed your preemie baby before they show signs of distress. When in the hospital, your preemie may be tube fed but this can still be breast milk, it then needs to be pumped and given to the nurses for feeding. Pumping for your preemie is going to happen often. Because premature babies need more nutrients, more often than full term babies it’s suggested that after breast feeding your preemie you pump so your breast milk supply is healthy and strong and supplemental feedings are ready.
Preemies may have trouble latching and sucking for the first few weeks. The sucking reflex isn’t developed until after 32 weeks of gestation and this can take time to learn for a preemie who just wants to sleep and grow. For the mother this might be frustrating and incredibly emotional. Stay strong and keep attempting to breastfeed and pump so breast milk for supplemental feeding. If the preemie is being tube fed breast milk the mother should expect to pump for feeding 6-8 times during the day and not go longer than 3 hours at night. Waking with full breasts indicates you’ve waited too long between pumping and this can diminish your breast milk.
Skin to skin contact, the warmth of a mother’s touch and breastfeeding your premature baby can be the best healing properties you can give. A preemie can thrive like any other full term baby and breast feeding is seen to discharge preemies sooner from the hospital and can reduce the effects of premature birth by diminishing lung infections, vision problems and blood infections. Take heart that while your birth plan may have gone awry, your plans for breast feeding can be maintained even with a premature baby.