When your baby is born prematurely, you’re undoubtedly worried and concerned for his health and well-being above all else. You want to do everything in your power to ensure that he grows up healthy and strong. One of the most important things you can do for your preemie’s health is to breastfeed, yet many mothers of premature babies are discouraged from breastfeeding. Many doctors recommend that mothers of preemies give their babies special preemie formula, insisting that this formula is better equipped to nourish their baby’s unique needs. But this is far from the truth. Premature infants need breast milk even more than babies born at full-term.
When your baby is born prematurely, your body knows. Your body will compensate by making extra-rich breast milk full of all the nutrition that your premature baby needs. Studies have shown that the milk produced by the mother of a premature infant is significantly different from that generated by the mother of a baby born at full-term.
Premature infants are especially susceptible to infection. Breast milk is rich in antibodies that boost a baby’s immune system and help him fight the germs that are bombarding him each day. Sometimes this extra immunity can be an absolute lifesaver for a premature baby.
Breast milk contains the exact combination of nutrients that an infant needs. This is especially true for premature babies. Infant formula contains synthetic replicas of many of these nutrients, and in many cases, these nutrients aren’t well-utilized by the body. (Case in point: the iron in infant formula is not as easily absorbed as the iron in breast milk, often resulting in constipation and anemia as well as other digestive problems.) There are many nutrients in breast milk that have not yet been duplicated in a lab, and it is estimated that there are still hundreds more that have not yet even been identified, let alone replicated. By feeding your premature baby with infant formula, you will deprive him of many of the nutrients that his body needs to develop to his fullest potential.
You may have heard of the term “kangaroo care.” This breastfeeding position involves holding your baby to your bare chest so that he can feel your heartbeat and soak in your body heat. This is a basic practice for premature infants. Your body can warm him better than any incubator, and he needs to feel that closeness to give him the strength to survive. Breastfeeding is an excellent way to give him this body contact, nourishing his spirit as well as his fragile body.
What if the baby is unable to nurse?
This is often a very real concern for premature infants. Their sucking reflex isn’t fully developed, and they often don’t have the strength and stamina required to nurse. As a result, many premature babies are fed through a tube. But just because your baby can’t physically suckle doesn’t mean that you can’t provide him with breast milk. By hand expressing or pumping breast milk, you can still provide him with nature’s perfect nutrition.
You can also request that your baby is fed with a syringe or cup instead of a tube or bottle. There are instances in which this is not a good idea, but many premature babies can thrive on breast milk administered this way. Using a small cup or syringe instead of a bottle will help prevent nipple confusion when you want to put the baby to breast later on. If you can feed your baby without a tube, you will be able to hold him more, which will help with the bonding that he so desperately needs. Feeding with a cup or syringe will take more time, so if the hospital staff seems unwilling to do this, offer to stay with your baby and handle the feeding yourself.
Do everything you possibly can to get that wonderful breast milk into your preemie. It is the absolute best choice you can make for his health.