Premature infants and breast-feeding

Premature babies, born before the 37th week of pregnancy, may be less likely to breast-feed right after birth because they may:

  • Have problems maintaining a stable body temperature.
  • Have problems sucking and swallowing.
  • Need extra protein and other nutrients in addition to breast milk.
  • Require feeding through a vein (intravenously, or IV) or through a tube inserted in the stomach.
  • Need observation for a few hours before being given anything to eat.

Discuss your preference for breast-feeding with your health professional and any specialists who are involved in your baby's care.

Premature babies should be fed breast milk whenever possible because the antibodies it contains are particularly beneficial. If necessary, breast milk can be fed to premature babies with a syringe, cup, or other device. Bottles are often avoided because their use may interfere with later establishing a breast-feeding routine. Nutritional supplements sometimes may be added to pumped breast milk or may be given separately. Once your baby is able to breast-feed, these supplements can be fed with a supplemental nursing system. This allows a baby to get the nutrients while breast-feeding through a tube that is positioned on the nipple.

Use a hospital-grade breast pump as soon as possible to establish your milk supply. Try to pump as often as you would breast-feed, or about once every 2 hours during the day and every 3 hours at night. Pump each breast for at least 15 to 20 minutes. Continue to pump even if your breast is emptied before the time is up. You can pump both breasts at the same time with some models of breast pumps.

Try to feed your baby directly at the breast for all feedings. If this is not always possible, feed your baby breast milk with a cup or syringe rather than a bottle. A lactation consultant may help you and your baby manage breast-feeding issues related to prematurity.

Last Updated: May 4, 2009

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