The Extraordinary Benefit of Breast Milk for Preemies

Breast milk is the best first food for all babies due to its phenomenal nutrients and protective antibodies. For preemies, the need for breast milk is even greater to help rapidly progress their development and set the stage for good health throughout their childhood. Today we’re looking at the extraordinary benefit of breast milk for preemies.

Preemies – babies born before 37 weeks of gestation – need an extra boost to help them continue their development outside of the womb. And there is no better substance on earth to assist in their growth than breast milk. As it does for all babies, breast milk offers preemies the best nutrition possible as well as antibodies that prevent potential illness and infection. For babies who are often struggling for survival, breast milk may be critical.

The Extraordinary Benefit of Breast Milk for PreemiesAmazingly, a mom’s breast milk changes throughout breastfeeding to meet the needs of her baby. This is no exception for preemies. The breast milk from a mom of a preemie contains more protein and minerals, as well as the right combination of fats that will improve the baby’s growth and development. This subtle yet important difference in breast milk produced for preemies also makes it easier for preemies to digest. Formula made with cow’s milk, even formula designed for preemies, can lead to intestinal infections in premature babies.

A recent study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that preemies who received more breast milk in their first 28 days of life had greater brain development at their intended due date and were more cognitively advanced at age seven than babies who did not receive as much or any breast milk. The study was completed on babies born prior to 30 weeks of gestation and who were in the NICU during at least their first 28 days of life. While many studies support the mental health benefits of breast milk, this study showed not only the short term but also the long term extraordinary benefit of breast milk for preemies.

A major hurdle in providing breast milk to preemies is that mothers are often separated from their babies and premature babies have a much harder time breastfeeding at birth. Babies usually don’t develop the skills required for latching until the 35th week of pregnancy or later. A preemie may not have the strength to form a proper latch for breastfeeding. Additionally, when babies are incubated in the NICU, mothers don’t have the opportunity to try breastfeeding right away.

When babies are unable to breastfeed, new moms can pump milk that can be fed to their premature baby through a tube or bottle. Producing milk can be more challenging when moms and babies are separated but looking at a picture of the baby, hearing a baby’s cry, and massaging the breasts can encourage milk flow. Early production may be limited to a few drops of colostrum but newborns don’t need much to sustain themselves due to their very small stomachs. The key to successful pumping for preemies is doing it often.

Parents of premature babies should discuss the extraordinary benefit of breast milk for preemies with their doctor, pediatrician and hospital nurses to ensure everyone is aware of the intent to provide breast milk as the best first food choice for the baby. The medical team can help facilitate a hospital-grade breast pump and transferring and feeding the milk to babies in the NICU. If a mom is not able to provide enough breast milk to sustain her preemie, parents often purchase donor breast milk until the mom can pump enough or the baby is better able to breastfeed.

The extraordinary benefit of breast milk for preemies is nothing short of miraculous. It’s nature’s health solution to helping the tiniest humans survive and thrive in life!

Sources: CBS News, Healthy Children, and Breast Milk Counts