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Breastfeeding Your Premature Baby

Ann E. Butenas


It has been a long nine months. You have read almost every pregnancy book you could get your hands on. You have devoured baby care tips from every source. You feel mentally prepared for the big challenge that awaits you. You have also decided that you are going to breastfeed your new little one. The excitement builds as your due date arrives. You are eager, yet a bit anxious, and hope that you can build a successful breastfeeding career with your baby.Birth of Your Baby

Suddenly, you are caught off-guard. Your body does things you did not anticipate. Before you realize it, you are in the hospital giving birth to your baby prematurely. Of course, your first concerns rest with the health and safety of your baby. Once those fears are calmed, and the delivery is a success, you may have increasing concerns about being able to breastfeed your premature baby. Is it possible? Should you even do it? This is something to which you have been looking forward to many months, and now you feel like all for which you have prepared has been shifted away from you.

Can premature babies be successfully breastfed, even if they are in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit)? Carol Oakleaf, RN, CLE, IBCLC of Wee Care Lactation Services in Overland Park, Kansas, offers an emphatic "Yes!" Oakleaf elaborates, "The reason I say 'emphatic' is because of the importance of breast milk to the premature infant."Benefits of Breastfeeding Your Premature Baby

Oakleaf cites a list of benefits in breastfeeding the premature baby, as noted in the La Leche League Breastfeeding Answer Book:

1. Human milk is easier to digest and better tolerated by most premature infants than is formula. The proteins in human milk - unlike proteins in formulas - are completely broken down and absorbed by the human digestive system.

2. An enzyme, lipase, that helps babies digest milk fat more efficiently, is contained in human milk. Fat is an important source of energy for the premature babies' growth.

3. Human milk contains extra defenses against infection. Antibodies give the premature baby's immature immune system protection from potentially serious bacterial and viral infections.

4. Research suggests that human milk contains hormones and enzymes, including certain growth factors that may be important to the baby's maturity, digestive and nervous systems.

5. Breastfeeding helps to bring moms and their babies closer - even before actually breastfeeding, the baby can be fed her mother's milk by tube. This can help the mom feel "connected" at a time when it is difficult to care directly for her children.A Shorter Stay in NICU

According to Liipfert and Gregory in Mothering Magazine (Fall 1993), the following statistics confirm the above-stated benefits for breastfeeding the premature infant: NICU stay in the hospital for non-breastfed babies: 20.6 days NICU stay for breastfed babies - 9.5 days Oakleaf referred to another study done by A. Lucas et al in England in a neonatal hospital nursery. Under very controlled criteria, the research demonstrated the importance of breastmilk on brain development and on I.Q., which cannot be duplicated in any other form of feeding. "Breast milk is species specific," notes Oakleaf. "Human milk is designed for humans, with brain growth being the most urgent need in the human baby." Conversely, cow's milk is designed for the calf that must be strong and able to get up and run immediately without much brainpower needed at any time!Breastmilk Storage While Your Baby Is In NICU

A mom facing issues surrounding breastfeeding a premature infant can be assured that her milk can be expressed and stored for later use. "Breastmilk can be pumped with the use of a commercial electric breast pump and stored according to the NICU protocol. Some moms have been successful using other methods of expressing breastmilk, but usually not for the length of time that is needed while the infant is in the hospital. Mothers usually need to pump eight times in a 24-hour period with a pump that effectively empties the breast," explained Oakleaf.

Oakleaf further noted that hospitals will provide sterile containers in which the expressed milk can be stored. "In fact," said Oakleaf, "mothers are strongly encouraged to do this for their babies because the benefits of breastmilk are well-recognized by hospital personnel."Your Concerns

There are still issues and options facing the mom who desires to breastfeed her premature infant. Oakleaf provides, "I believe the biggest issues moms face are physical and emotional support for the circumstances that they face with the unexpected birth of their baby/babies. When these needs are met, it becomes much easier for them to do the things needed to provide the breastmilk." Oakleaf further explained that there is also the issue of education as to why breastmilk is so important and how important mom is in this equation. "NO ONE else is able to provide the quality nourishment for her baby that she can," Oakleaf stressed. "The breastmilk produced by the mother of a premature baby is different than the breastmilk produced by the mom of a full-term infant. It provides very specific nutrients needed by the preemie to thrive on in this early stage of development."

Oakleaf concludes that another issue, to which she previously alluded, is the logistics surrounding the expressing of milk (i.e.- pumping, storing, and transporting milk to the nursery.) "Sometimes the physical condition of the baby is so overwhelming that it is very difficult to leave the baby even long enough to do the required pumping. This can by worked through, but mom needs support from staff, family, and friends at times like these to make it through to a better day." The nursing mom may also need some assistance in transporting her milk to the hospital, or she may live quite some distance from the NICU. To assist with this particular need, many hospitals will have some type of boarding arrangements or other housing alternatives for the mothers and their families.

Having a premature baby can be a difficult time, but be assured that you can still provide your baby with all the essential nutrients and benefits of YOUR breastmilk. Look at it this way: As a preemie, that infant is REALLY getting a head start on good nutrition!

For more information from Carol Oakleaf, e-mail her at

About the Author: As a work-at-home mom to sons Alec (1995), Zach (1996) and Noah (1998), Ann balances motherhood with the demands of a busy work schedule. While maintaining her business, ANZ PUBLICATIONS (pronounced as "Ann's" for her first name, yet spelled as an acronym for her sons, Alec, Noah, and Zach), Ann freelance writes for a host of publications, has published her own book and currently has a series of children's books in the works. She also hosts her own weekly talk show for work-at-home parents called "Right at Home with Ann," which can be heard each Thursday from 10 a.m. - 11 a.m. central time on In addition, Ann recently received her appointment to the faculty at Baker University where she plans to teach communications and writing courses. Visit her site at She would love to hear from you!

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