Breastfeeding and Preemies – What Mothers Should Know

By Irene Zoppi

While it is well documented that breastfeeding is the healthiest option for babies, the benefits ring true in an especially critical way for premature infants.

While some expectant mothers know ahead of time that they may deliver prematurely, many others have no indication. In the midst of National Prematurity Awareness Month all mothers can arm themselves with some basic knowledge about the importance of mothers’ milk should they deliver prematurely.

Critical Importance for Preemies

Acting as a medicine for premature babies, mothers’ milk is more than just a source of food and nutrition - it offers protection in fighting the complications of prematurity through three main functions:

• The antibodies in mothers’ milk paint the inside of the baby’s intestines sealing off tiny open parts so germs cannot enter and make their way to the bloodstream.

• Some components of mothers’ milk directly kill germs while other parts make it difficult for them to grow.

• Mothers’ milk helps a premature baby develop the ability to fight infections on his or her own, by turning on certain genes and processes that control the immune system’s defenses against infection.

Getting Your Milk Supply Started

Colostrum, the milk a mother produces right after delivery, has the highest concentration of the antibodies necessary to fight complications of prematurity. Due to its high concentration of protective substances, colostrum is often referred to as “liquid gold”. Pre-term mothers make colostrum for a longer time period than do full-term mothers, and it is important to capture all of this ‘liquid gold’. There is a critical window shortly after delivery where preemies are more susceptible to illnesses. As a result it is recommended that mothers get off to an early start pumping, usually six hours after delivery. Mothers should pump roughly eight times a day to start, as often as if they were breastfeeding a full-term infant. Mothers can also take care to monitor their milk volumes by keeping a pumping log that tracks the frequency of pumping and the volume of milk pumped in a 24-hour period.

Bonding With Your Baby in the NICU

Mothers must realize that while they may not be able to directly breastfeed their infant while in the NICU, pumping provides a way to establish a relationship with their baby. By providing milk, mothers create an emotional connection through actively becoming engaged in caring for their baby. Mothers can use a breast pump at the baby’s bedside in the NICU where they can see and touch their baby. In addition, if a premature baby is healthy enough to be held, mothers can hold them in ‘Kangaroo Care’ (skin-to-skin), which helps boost the baby’s body functions including breathing, heart rate, oxygen levels, temperature and deep-sleep.

Remember Yourself

Finally, it is critical for mothers to take care of themselves and recognize that caring for a preemie is hard work.

Vote for your preferred NICU in honor of Prematurity Awareness Month!

In honor of Prematurity Awareness Month, Medela is hosting a Virtual Human Milk Collection Campaign. Throughout the month of November, individuals can visit to register their vote for their preferred Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). The four NICUS, one in each of four geographic regions, that obtain the most votes will receive at least $5,000 each worth of Medela products or education services for their facility.