Feeding a Premature Baby

A premature baby is one that's born prior to 37 weeks of gestation. Feeding a preemie can be a challenge, because the baby sometimes doesn't have enough time in the womb to develop the digestive maturity and suck-swallow coordination that full term babies posess. The baby will likely spend some time in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) following birth until he can breathe, eat, digest and gain weight on his own. An important first food that can build up a preemie's immune functions, and supply needed fat, protein and nutrients, is breast milk.

What if my preemie can't nurse at the breast? Breast milk is so important for babies, especially premature babies, that the hospital NICU staff will be finding the best way to help your baby begin to take it in. At first the baby may have a tiny tube going into her stomach to supply breast milk, or the staff may help the baby develop the suck-swallow ability by working with you and the baby together. An alternative is finger feeding a preemie breast milk through a tube taped to your finger. In all of these cases, you'll need to immediately start expressing milk with a breast pump.

How do I use a breast pump? The hospital-grade breast pump that you will likely use produces the most milk in the shortest amount of time. It stimulates your let down response and has the right amount of suction and timing to express milk quickly and ensure that your supply stays high. There are lactation consultants at the hospital who can help you learn to express milk, and also teach your baby how to latch and nurse when he is ready.

How often do I have to pump? You should pump milk as often as you would nurse, which at the start is at least every two hours. You should express milk until you feel your breasts are empty, doing both breasts each time, to get the most milk and to train your milk production for the time when you will be directly feeding a healthy and hungry infant directly at your breast.

How do I know when my preemie is hungry? Preemies might not cry as a full-term baby would when they're hungry. They tend to be quieter and have less energy for crying. You also don't want them to use their precious energy on crying, but to save it for growing and developing. You need to be very attentive to your baby's hunger signs, which might be just an attentive look. You may also need to stimulate your baby to eat regularly by undressing her, so she seeks the comfort of your warm skin and begins feeding. Follow the directions of the staff, and your maternal instincts.

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