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Breastfeeding Your Premature Baby

Giving birth to a premature or other high-risk baby (or babies) does not mean you can't breastfeed. Actually, the opposite may be the case. There is even more reason to provide your own milk for, and eventually breastfeed, a premature or a sick newborn. Providing your milk for your baby lets you participate in your baby's healthcare in a very crucial way. Because the benefits of mother's milk are so important to the high-risk newborn, you are able to do something for your baby that no one else can.

Benefits of mother's milk for the premature baby include: 

  • Improved digestion and gastrointestinal function

  • Decreased infections

  • Improved brain and eye development

  • Improved wellness of the mother and bonding with baby

How your milk will be used by the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) depends on the health status of your baby. Even babies who are not eating yet will benefit from breast milk. The nurses will use your milk to clean your baby's gums. This is called oral care. This introduces healthy bacteria into your baby's body. As your baby progresses, your milk will then be used to deliver calories through a tube or bottle. When it is appropriate, the NICU staff will help your baby breastfeed directly to get milk. As the mother of a high-risk newborn, you may have to overcome difficulties that a mother and full-term, healthy baby are unlikely to have when learning to breastfeed. However, you and your baby will learn to breastfeed. It simply may take a bit more patience and persistence. How soon you and your baby can start to breastfeed will depend on the maturity of your baby's brain and body systems.

Until your baby is able to breastfeed, you can express your milk (remove milk from your breasts) to establish and maintain breast milk production. Milk expression also allows your high-risk baby to get the benefits of your milk as soon as his or her gastrointestinal tract is ready to handle tube or mouth feedings. Plan to continue to express your milk until you know your baby is able to get all needed nourishment directly from your breasts. As soon as your baby is stable, ask the doctors and nurses when you can hold your baby skin-to-skin. This is called kangaroo care and is good for your premature baby's physical condition as well as breastfeeding.