Premature babies arrive earlier than the expected 38 weeks gestation. Thanks to medical advances, babies weighing slightly less than 2 pounds are more likely to survive today.
However, because a premature baby’s organs are often not fully developed, they are at a greater risk for health complications such as breathing issues, infection, anemia, and low blood pressure. Breast milk, though, has been shown to play a crucial role in improving the health of premature infants.
Most premature babies won’t be able to breastfeed initially because they aren’t strong enough and their sucking-swallowing coordination is not yet developed. Also, because the gastrointestinal tract of many premature babies is often not yet fully developed, they must be fed very slowly and carefully, usually through a tube that is placed through the mouth directly into the stomach. But that doesn’t mean that these babies shouldn’t receive breast milk. In fact, breast milk contains many important antibodies that help fight disease and prevent infection, a benefit crucial to vulnerable preemies. Breast milk also contains proteins that promote growth, helping preemies grow at a faster rate than full-term babies.
Another benefit of breast milk is that it plays an important role in preventing problems specific to preemies. An important area of study has been the protective effects of breast milk against necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a serious intestinal infection. One study showed that infants who received artificial milk had 6-10 times increased risk for NEC than infants fed breast milk. Other studies revealed premature infants fed breast milk were at a significantly decreased risk of any kind of infection—including the potentially devastating infectious condition called meningitis.
I have also mentioned in a previous blog post that amazingly enough, mother’s own milk is designed specifically for the age of the baby. Milk for a 20 week old preemie will be different than the milk for a 26 week old preemie as the milk produced has varying degrees of protein, lipids, fatty acids, calcium, vitamins and other important nutrients vital to the developing baby.
While I don’t know how our bodies know to produce milk that is meant for our babies age, it just does. This further supports the need for babies to receive their own mothers milk as it is specially designed for them.
While mothers of premature babies naturally produce milk tailored to the needs of their small offspring, preemie breast milk may also be fortified with supplements called “human milk fortifiers” to provide additional needed calcium, vitamins, and protein. Clinical evidence has shown that preemies who received fortified breast milk experienced improved growth and a better nutritional status.
Next post we will talk more specifically about some helpful hints for mothers who are pumping exclusively for their premature babies.