Is breastfeeding different with a premature baby?

Here are five things you should know about breastfeeding your preemie:

1. Your milk adjusts to the circumstances. Studies show that when moms of preemies breastfeed, the milk they produce is more rich in proteins and has slightly different fats than later breast milk. It's specially designed to help a premature infant through those first difficult weeks.

2. Your baby may be in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). The disappointment of not being able to be with your baby is compounded by your inability to nurse her. But you can pump -- let the doctors and nurses know that you'd like to do so, and your breast milk will be given to your baby there in the hospital (via tube, cup, or bottle), and/or you can freeze it at home for later use.

3. Sometimes doctors supplement with preemie formula. While breast milk is best for preemies because it's so easy to digest, occasionally doctors and nurses want to supplement with formula to maximize the calories your baby is getting. Just remind them that your goal is to eventually get your baby breastfeeding exclusively, and keep pumping every two to three hours to keep up your milk supply.

4. Transitioning to breastfeeding may take some patience. Switching to breastfeeding at home may be a bumpy ride, especially if your baby has gotten used to being fed with a bottle, which is easy to get milk out of. If needed, you can use a nursing supplementer -- a tiny tube is taped next to your breast and your baby gets milk from that and from you, then eventually will suckle from just you.

5. Enlist support. Breast milk is incredibly good for premature and ill babies, but your relatives and friends may not understand all the health benefits. They also might worry about your having to pump, and may suggest you switch to formula "for your own good." Many mothers of preemies, however, don't mind round-the-clock pumping, because it helps them feel that they can do something to care for their hospitalized baby. Explain this to well-meaning loved ones, and ask them to help you by giving you time to express breast milk.

Sources: American Academy of Pediatrics; La Leche League

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

American Baby