Preemie Basics

No woman ever expects to give birth prematurely, yet about one in eight American moms deliver before their 37th week of pregnancy. And the minute preemies are born, they have many special healthcare needs. While the vast majority of preterm babies -- even those who weigh a little under 2 pounds -- survive and even thrive, often their parents are just not prepared. We've pulled together a guide to nurturing your baby in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) and at home.

Breastfeed Your Preemie, If You Can

Because preemies grow at a faster rate than full-term newborns, they have special nutrient needs. Preterm formulas can provide all the nourishment your baby needs to develop, but your breast milk has one advantage: It contains antibodies that will protect him from infections his immune system can't fight off. "As soon as her baby is born, a mother will start producing milk," says Toby Debra Yanowitz, MD, a neonatologist at Magee-Womens Hospital of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "We see babies born at 24 to 25 weeks whose moms start pumping within hours of delivery." Babies born before 32 to 34 weeks are usually too immature to suck from a breast or a bottle, but NICU nurses will feed your milk through a tube inserted into your baby's nose or mouth.

Perhaps one of the best arguments for pumping (which you need to do every three hours until your baby can nurse) is how it will make you feel. "With their baby in the NICU, a lot of moms feel helpless," says Mandy Brown Belfort, MD, a neonatologist in the NICU at Children's Hospital Boston. "Breastfeeding gives you a sense of empowerment because you know you're the only person who can provide this for your baby."

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