Importance of Breast Milk for Preemies

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Your breastmilk is specially designed to meet the nutritional needs of your premature baby; therefore, it is the perfect food for him. Since your milk is tailored to fit your baby’s nutritional needs there are several benefits that he’ll receive.

Increased Health Benefits

Breastmilk contains the enzyme lipase which aids in the digestion of fat this is helpful to preemies because fat provides a good source of energy for infant growth. Preemies are also able to digest breastmilk more easily and are able to tolerate it better than formulas.

Additionally, since premature babies have undeveloped immune systems they are more susceptible to infections so the anti-infective and anti-inflammatory agents found in breastmilk help to protect them from bacterial infections.

In some cases, a mother’s expressed milk may be fortified with a supplement or human milk fortifier to provide the infant with additional nutrients.

How Pumping Can Help

A good quality breast pump can be used to build and maintain your supply, until baby is able to nurse directly from the breast. 

During the first few days following birth, you will only be able to express very small amounts of colostrum. However, your baby will greatly benefit from any amount of colostrum that he receives. Your baby will be able to receive your expressed milk through a gavage or nasogastric tube. Pumping milk for your baby can also help you to feel connected to him while he is receiving feedings through a tube.

You’ll produce two types of breastmilk foremilk and hindmilk. Foremilk is the milk that is available at the beginning of a nursing or pumping session. Hindmilk comes during the second half of a nursing or pumping session. Hindmilk is generally preferred for preemies since its fat content can be up to 3 times higher than foremilk.

Transition to Nursing

Although most doctors will suggest bottle-feeding before breastfeeding, breastfeeding is less stressful for preemies. They are able to coordinate sucking, swallowing and breathing more easily when breastfeeding than when bottle feeding.

Once your preemie is able to nurse at the breast, you should be prepared for frequent feedings since he or she may not be able to get much milk during each nursing in the beginning. Continuing to pump milk when initiating these early feedings can help you to maintain your supply while your baby learns to nurse at the breast.

Your preemie is to nurse for feedings when:

  • Tolerates expressed milk well when fed through gavage
  • Is able to coordinate suckling, swallowing and breathing
  • Is able to maintain body temperature when outside of an incubator
  • Overall his health is in good condition

Returning Home

When you return home, you should plan to spend the first few days taking of your baby and breastfeeding him as often as possible. This will help to make the transition go a little smoother for the baby, and will allow you to find a feeding strategy that works for the two of you. During this time, it is very important that you have some help around the house so that your attention can be focused on your baby.

Meeting with a lactation consultant can help you to adjust pumping and transitioning to nursing. She’ll be able to give you pumping tips as well as give you guidance on different breastfeeding positions that may work for you and your baby.

It is possible to successfully breastfeed your premature infant as long as you have help and support. For more information on breastfeeding a pre-term infant, visit La Leche League and

Return to: Breast Pumping Issues

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