Breastfeeding has many benefits for preemies, ranging from lower incidence of NEC and infection to long term benefits of faster healing, shorter periods of illness and increased cognitive development.
Breastfeeding a premature baby not only offers all of the same benefits of breastfeeding a full term baby, but premature babies also receives several preemie-specific benefits of receiving breast milk.
The breastmilk of a preemie mom is said to be more nutritionally and immunologically dense than that of a full term infants mothers milk.
Nutritional Benefits of Breastfeeding a Preemie
Premature babies have immature digestive systems, and breast milk is the perfect food for their tiny bellies. Studies show that premature babies digest breast milk better than they digest formula.
Proteins can be hard for tiny tummies to digest. When children have milk allergies, it is the milk proteins that they are allergic to. One benefit of breastfeeding a premature baby is that the proteins in breast milk are much easier to digest. Breast milk contains more easy-to-digest whey than formula does, and the body digests whey more easily, and thus breast milk more quickly.
Because premature babies usually weigh very little at birth, good growth is important for their development. Breast milk contains lipase, which helps premature babies digest the fats in breast milk more completely. Better fat absorption is an important benefit of breastfeeding a premature baby.
Breast milk contains both lactose (a sugar) and oligosaccharides (a type of carbohydrate). Premature babies absorb up to 90% of the lactose in breast milk, which helps them absorb minerals easily. The oligosaccharides inhibit the attachment of harmful bacteria to the intestinal mucosa, which is thought to contribute to the decreased risk of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) seen in breastfed preemies.
Immunological Benefits of Breastfeeding a Preemie
Most preemies are at risk for infections that can sometimes be very serious, so immune system benefits are some of the most important benefits of breastfeeding a premature baby.
The carbohydrates in breast milk help to prevent bacteria from “sticking” to a baby’s mucous membranes. This benefit of breastfeeding a premature baby helps preemies to get sick less often.
Protection against specific illnesses
Not only does breastfeeding protect premature babies from general illness, but research shows that breast milk reduces a premature baby’s risk of several specific conditions. Breastfed preemies have a lower risk of NEC, a serious complication of prematurity. Breastfeeding also lowers a preemie’s risk of sepsis, meningitis, and respiratory infections such as pneumonia and bronchiolitis.
As they grow, the benefits of breastfeeding premature babies expand. Although the relationship between Mom’s immune system and baby’s immune system is not clearly understood, mothers pass on current antibodies to their breastfed babies. If mom and baby are exposed to a cold, Mom’s immune system will begin to send cold-fighting antibodies to the baby through the breast milk. Since premature babies can get very sick from RSV and other common illnesses, this is an important benefit.
Cognitive Benefits That Come With Breastfeeding
In addition to the nutritional and immunological benefits of breast milk, breastfeeding may help preemies get ahead intellectually. Preemies are at risk for developmental delays and poor school functioning, the cognitive benefits of breast milk are extra important for premature babies.
Early cognitive benefits
Infants who receive breast milk early in life are more likely to have better cognitive functioning as toddlers. One study in particular showed that low birth weight infants who received breast milk (even when combined with formula) scored higher on tests that measure cognitive delvelopment at age 30 months.
Lasting cognitive benefits
The intellectual benefits of breast milk do not stop when a baby is weaned. Even at age 7 1/2 to 8, children who received breast milk as premature infants still have higher IQ scores than children born early who did not receive breast milk.
Pumping For Your Preemie
In the NICU, it’s easy for parents to feel powerless, pumping breastmilk for your preemie may help you to feel like you are achieving something for your sick baby, it can also help you feel more bonded with baby .
Babies in the NICU may be too sick to snuggle, and NICU equipment often intimidates parents. Moms who provide breast milk for their preemies are doing something important, something nobody else can do for their little ones.
Majority of NICU’s provide mom with a manual breast pump or the option to use the hospital grade pump, they should also provide assistance from a lactation consultant to help get baby to the breast as soon as possible.
Learning How To Pump
Sitting down to pump can feel very overwhelming and daunting, not to mention discouraging when you barely manage to get anything out.
It is important to be realistic about the amount of milk you are making, baby needs no more than a few mls of breastmilk per feed in the beginning, so a yeild of 5 to 10mls of colostrum per session is completely normal.
Breastfeeding works on the basis of demand equals supply, the more often you pump the more milk you will make, the more you stimulate the milk ducts, the more they produce.
Most NICU’s will follow a strict feeding schedule of feeding every 3 hours, it is equally important to try and pump every 2 to 3 hours around the clock in order to establish your supply, and while this schedule may seem overwhelming, especially with having a new baby in the NICU, it is possible and the benfits far outweigh the difficulty experienced following this type of schedule.
Stress can negatively effect your milk supply and NICU is a very stressful and scary situation to find yourself in. Speak to your doctor or lactation consultant if you feel you are unable to keep up with the demand.
It is important to remember to take care of yourself and eat well, drink plenty of fluids and using meditation, breathing exercises and try to get as much rest as possible.
Here is a very informative link regarding combining hand techniques with electric pumping increases milk production in mothers of preterm infants.