Breastmilk for premature babies
Your breastmilk is exactly suited to your premature baby’s nutritional needs. It’s important for your baby’s development and growth. It also protects your baby from infection and illnesses.
If you give birth prematurely, your milk will be slightly different from milk at term. This is because your baby’s needs are different from those of a baby born at term.
Because premature babies need more proteins for growth than term babies, your colostrum will have more protein than the colostrum of term birthing mothers.
Your breastmilk will also have more of an enzyme called lysozyme. Lysozyme attacks certain bacteria and helps protect your baby from infections. And your breastmilk will have more fat and less lactose, because premature babies find lactose hard to digest.
Expressing breastmilk for premature babies
If your premature baby is 34 weeks or older, they’ll probably be able to have some breastmilk directly from your breast. But if your baby is younger, it might be weeks before they’re able to breastfeed fully.
During this time your baby can still have your breastmilk. This can be through a tube that runs from your baby’s nose down their throat into their stomach, or it can be by bottle or cup.
You’ll need to express your breastmilk either by hand or with a manual or electric pump.
It’s helpful to express breastmilk soon after your baby’s birth – within an hour if you can – and then express every 2-4 hours to keep your supply up. Expressing at least once overnight also helps to keep your supply up.
Like breastfeeding, expressing breastmilk is a skill you have to learn. If you have trouble expressing, the midwives, nurses or the hospital’s lactation consultant will be able to help you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
If expressing breastmilk works for you, it’s one of the things you can do to feel close to and care for your baby. Our guide to expressing and storing breastmilk can help you get started.
Premature babies starting to breastfeed
Before your premature baby can feed directly from your breast, kangaroo care can be a great way to help them get comfortable with skin-to-skin contact. It can also help you to produce more milk.
When your baby is ready to start breastfeeding, you might find that progress can be quite slow, especially if your baby was born very early or is very sick. Feeding is a complicated skill, and premature babies get tired very quickly. During this learning time, your baby might get only a very small amount of milk from your breast, with the rest fed by tube.
It can take some premature babies a while to learn how to breastfeed.
Birthing mothers and babies do better at breastfeeding when they have support and help. The nursing staff or the hospital’s lactation consultant will help you with breastfeeding positions and breastfeeding attachment techniques. When you get home, your child and family health nurse, GP or the Australian Breastfeeding Association can also support you.
Breastmilk supplements and alternatives for premature babies
Sometimes breastmilk doesn’t give premature babies all the nutrients they need for good growth. So your breastmilk might need an added powder containing extra protein, calories, calcium or phosphorus for bone growth.
If you can’t breastfeed or express, you might be able to give your baby donated breastmilk. This might be possible if the hospital where you gave birth has a milk bank.
In Australia, donated breastmilk is pasteurised before it’s given to your baby. The pasteurisation process does reduce some of the nutrients and the properties of the milk that protect against infection, but the milk still has enough to do your baby good.
There might be times when your baby’s doctor suggests that your baby needs feeds of infant formula as well as breastmilk to get extra nutrition.
If you need to give your premature baby formula as well as breastmilk, it doesn’t mean you should stop expressing or breastfeeding altogether. Express breastmilk for as long as you can. Many babies have a combination of breastmilk and formula, and any amount of breastmilk has benefits.
And if you need to use formula because expressing is hard or you have problems with breastmilk supply, it’s comforting to know that infant formula can provide the basic building blocks for your child’s growth and development. There are special formulas for premature babies.
However you’re feeding your baby, you’re also being there for your baby and providing comfort. A warm and loving relationship with you is an important influence on your baby’s development too.