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Breast Milk for Premature Babies: Will it be Enough?

Breast Milk for Premature Babies: Will it be Enough? #breastfeeding #preemie #NICU #newbornIt’s not something anyone hopes or plans for – to go into preterm labor and deliver prematurely. But it happens often. In fact, 1 in 8 babies is born prematurely in the United States! (The contributing factors for this are beyond the scope of this particular post, though.) Often, babies born early may face unique challenges that require medical supervision. So, is it safe to assume that breast milk for premature babies will be enough to grow and develop their minds and bodies during the weeks they were missing from the womb?


Breast Milk for Premature Babies – Facts and Fiction

Delivering prematurely can be fraught with difficulty, delay and challenges. It can be scary and stressful. There may be many hands in the pot – or the care – of the little one(s). But the fact of the matter is, for the most part, breast milk will be enough.

The mother’s milk – whether expressed or “from the tap” – is exactly what God designed for the baby to need at this critical stage in his life. In fact, there is evidence that breast milk for preterm babies takes on an even more important role during this time of prematurity, adjusting to the baby’s specific challenges. It’s simply fascinating!

Now, let’s assume that the mother, though surprised by a preterm labor and delivery, is able to either pump or breastfeed within just a few hours of giving birth. She’s communicating to her body that it is time to make milk – this is perhaps the most important key, and one that should be pursued and/or fought for, if needed.

Let’s also assume that she has been adequately shown how to latch the baby and time has been spent ensuring his latch is correct.

Many hospitals, however, may operate under conventional thinking that can often lead to the cessation of breastfeeding, the drying up of the mother’s milk, obesity problems and more.

Fortifiers are necessary for adequate growth.
In an attempt to get the baby to grow in a pattern similar to that of babies born full-term, he or she may be given fortifiers (vitamins and/or supplements like formula). But there is evidence that this type of fortification may lead to problems later in life – like high cholesterol and blood pressure, insulin resistance and becoming overweight. Instead, and again assuming the mother was able to initiate breastfeeding and/or pump within a few hours after birth, the premature baby should easily develop well on breast milk and maybe Vitamin D (like this one).

There is no good evidence to prove that a premature baby needs to grow at the same rate as if they were still growing inside the womb. However, there is more than enough evidence that, with plenty of access to the breast, a good latch and an adequate supply, a premature baby should have no trouble growing at the rate he or she needs to.

Premature babies need more than breast milk because they get tired at the breast.
Preterm babies are often given bottles when a session at the breast appears to tire the newborn out. When the flow of milk is sometimes slower, especially in the first few weeks, it can seem as if the baby isn’t getting enough because the baby falls asleep at the breast. Rather than continue to allow the baby to go to the breast often, the baby is given a bottle which causes the baby to automatically suck due to the force of the bottle, rather than suck out of need and hunger. (This article is an incredibly helpful explanation of how bottles lead to overfeeding infant formula and breast milk.)

Instead, a good latch and breast compressions can get the milk flowing enough that the baby will not want to fall asleep at the breast. This should be well-attempted before assuming the baby should be given a bottle.

Of course, if the mother is unable to breastfeed or pump immediately after birth and supply becomes a question, or the baby(ies) experience forms of respiratory distress, these can be times when fortification is necessary. But to assume a premature baby must automatically be given artificial milk, supplements, etc. simply because he or she is born preterm, is not necessary.

Breast is Still Best

So, then. With accounts of preterm babies as young as 28 weeks old being taught to breastfeed and gain the innumerable benefits of breast milk, such as stem cells and antibodies, it seems the evidence is stacked in favor of breast milk for premature babies being the ultimate and adequate choice.

Did you have a preterm baby? Did your hospital assume breast milk for premature babies was the obvious choice?


Jennifer Fountain is the founder of Growing Up Triplets and is a contributor to other blogs, including Breastfeeding Place. She writes about raising their three-year-old-triplets, taking the family back to living simply, and endeavoring to honor God in the midst of it all. She has been married to her hubby, David, for nearly five years and is madly in love with him! You can follow Jennifer and the three peas on Google+FacebookTwitterPinterest and the blog.


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