When a baby is born prematurely, every second counts. And, especially when feeding babies in the NICU, every drop of breastmilk counts. It is often impossible for a premature baby to breastfeed directly, so pumping breastmilk is the best solution. Not only does pumping breastmilk give the baby a healthy start and an injection of great micronutrients that boost immunity, strength and healing, but it also gives mom a chance to do the one thing that only she can do to support the baby, and makes her feel like she is empowered to do something to help the child have a better chance to survive, grow and thrive.

When feeding breastmilk in the NICU, it’s good to know about the importance of micronutrients in breastmilk. These unique ingredients of breastmilk work together to support and organize the correct balance of a baby’s needs to grow strong. Micronutrients are nature’s wonder drugs. Also known as “vitamins and minerals,” micronutrients include such substances as copper, fluoride, iodine, selenium, sodium, and zinc, vitamin A, C, D, E and K, and also the B-complex vitamins. Micronutrients offer some of the most important benefits of breastfeeding.

Here are a few tips and insights for breastfeeding moms of premature babies. Hopefully breastfeeding in the NICU can become a source of comfort and inspiration for both your baby and for you!

Feeding Babies Breastmilk in the NICU is important

Preterm infants have more developmental hurdles to overcome than term infants. But even if a baby starts life in the NICU it does not mean that the child will be at a permanent disadvantage. Pumping breastmilk in the NICU can help the baby get the best chance at growing and enjoying a healthy, normal life.

Evidence has shown that breastmilk can improve a baby’s mental and physical development. Micronutrients in breastmilk give the baby a head start, and every drop of milk can make all the difference in how quickly they grow strong and get to the point where they are able to go home.

Breastmilk, especially colostrum, is important for premature babies, because it is a “first food” for a baby. Just by giving a baby breastmilk, you are providing the nutrients, vitamins and minerals that it needs to support a growing body and immune system. The contents of colostrum and breast milk provide no doubt they are important to term infants, and critical for preterm infants.

Preterm babies especially benefit from the protection of the “breastmilk army.” According to research about the effects of breastfeeding on premature babies described in this article, premature babies who do not receive breastmilk are at “significantly higher risk of infections, sepsis, meningitis, digestive problems, and necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC),” a life-threatening condition in which part of the baby’s intestine dies. Unicef research shows that exclusively formula fed babies are 6 to 10 times more likely to develop NEC than babies who consume breastmilk. For these reasons and more, pumping breastmilk in the NICU might be the best thing you can do for your baby at this crucial time of their life.

Studies on neurodevelopmental outcomes have reported significantly positive effects for human milk intake in the neonatal period and long-term mental and motor development, intelligence quotient, and visual acuity right through adolescence.

Get Ready to Change Your Expectations

One of the emotional challenges for moms of premature babies is that this new reality of having a baby in the NICU is not what you probably envisioned when you first got pregnant. You had a plan, but having a premature baby in the NICU changes all of that – now you have to adapt. Nourishing a premature baby “looks” different than what your ideal image of early motherhood might have been – instead of holding your baby to the breast, you’re using a breastpump to express milk for your baby. But don’t feel bad! You are still every bit as involved and connected and nurturing as a mother as if you were holding that child to your own nipple.

As a mother, giving breastmilk to your baby is something unique and beneficial that only you can provide. And someday soon, when the baby has grown and developed to the point that she is ready to nurse from the breast, you can start enjoying the full bonding experience of breastfeeding. But in the meantime, try not to feel sad or disappointed – you and your baby are bravely going on this journey together, and pumping breastmilk and eventually breastfeeding, is one way that you can help keep your baby healthy and strong.

Be Ready for the Challenges of Pumping in the NICU

Pumping breastmilk can be challenging for new moms, especially for mothers of premature babies who are not able to have their baby in close contact to help stimulate the process. The breasts can tell the difference between pumping and suckling from a baby, so you have to try different techniques to “trick” your breasts into letting that precious milk go. Some women have a picture, blanket, teddy or reminder of their baby – if it is possible try to sit near your baby when you pump.

Direct skin-on-skin contact with your baby against your chest is so helpful – so do it as often as the nurses will let you, and then pump immediately afterwards. Just keep telling yourself that every precious drop (literally) of milk is going to help your baby get stronger! Even if you struggle to pump enough breastmilk during the early days in the NICU, keep in mind that your body is adapting and your milk production needs time to build. Once your baby is able to latch on and nurse directly he will support your milk supply. With breastfeeding and other aspects of caring for new babies, whether or not they’re premature, everything tends to become easier with time.

Feeding Breastmilk and Breastfeeding in the NICU

Be prepared to serve as your own best advocate in the NICU. Most NICU units are supportive of feeding breastmilk to preterm babies (for obvious reasons), but you might encounter some situations or some NICU staff where the value of breastfeeding (instead of pumping) is not seen as a priority. It may not be possible at the beginning due to the baby’s size or health challenges, but as soon as the baby can latch on to the breast, breastfeeding should be encouraged. Breastfeeding (instead of pumping or in addition to pumping) often makes life easier for the baby and mother, and can help speed the baby’s growth, development and readiness to leave the NICU to go home.

Do you have any stories to share of breastfeeding in the NICU? What worked for you and your baby? Leave a comment and let us know, or join us at the Medela Canada Facebook page.

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