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Nursing a Preterm Infant

Give your baby the best

BEST for Preterm Infants

All babies need the traditional benefits of human milk, but for preterm infants, the benefits are even more important. Preterm babies are at greater risk for having health problems early in life, and they face other special challenges as well.
March of Dimes Report Card
Check out the March of Dimes Report Card to see New Mexico’s preterm birth rate and grade.

Preterm infants need human milk

Preterm babies (born 3 or more weeks before their due date) need extra love and care. Your human milk is one of the most important things you can give your preterm infant. No other nourishment compares to human milk, and preterm infants need all the nourishment they can get! Human milk offers preterm infants wonderful benefits to help them grow and develop properly.

Why human milk is BEST

  • Baby can easily digest human milk, and it helps with developing and protecting the digestive system.
  • Eating human milk provides antibodies and other substances that shield your baby from disease.
  • Special nutrients are provided in human milk to help infant grow and go home sooner.
  • There are over 200 components to human milk that are not available in human milk substitute.

Nursing your preterm infant

There are many challenges to nursing a baby in the hospital. Don’t be shy about letting your care providers know that you plan to nurse. Babies who are born early can’t always feed at the breast right away. Because of their small size and lack of muscle development, they may have a harder time latching on or staying latched on to the breast. Feedings can take longer than normal because of this. Hang in there, and don’t give up. If you need help, seek support from NM WIC.

If your baby cannot nurse

In the beginning, you may need to pump human milk that can be given to your baby through a bottle or tube. Your baby will still get the same rich nutrients from your pumped human milk. If your baby cannot nurse, pump both of your breasts using an electric pump. It’s important to start as soon as possible and to pump often. The more you nurse or pump, the more milk your body will make. WIC has pumps for nursing parents who are enrolled in the program. If you think you may need a pump and are enrolled or eligible, talk to a WIC Lactation Consultant. If your baby needs milk before your milk comes in, you may be able to get milk from your local milk bank. Eventually, your baby will be strong enough to nurse from your breast. Most preterm babies become much better at nursing around the time of their original due date, so don’t give up if your baby doesn’t latch right away. Keep trying! You can also get help from a WIC peer counselor.

How often should I pump?

If your baby is in the hospital or unable to latch onto the breast, you will need to pump each time your baby would have had a feeding. This will ensure you have plenty of milk for your baby. Plan to pump 8-10 times throughout the day and night, or every 2-3 hours, for the first two weeks. Pump both breasts at the same time for 15-20 minutes each session, or at least 100 minutes a day per baby. Mothers of multiples will need to pump longer and more frequently.

How much milk should I get?

At first, you may only get a few drops of colostrum. Don’t worry—that’s totally normal. Your baby only needs tiny amounts of your milk in the first few days, and your colostrum is rich in antibodies and nutrients. As you continue to pump, your milk will come in and your supply will get stronger. You can expect to get between ½ to 2 ounces each time you pump.

The importance of skin-to-skin care

It’s important to ask the nurses and staff whether you and your partner can have “skin-to-skin” (link to Benefits of skin to skin page) time with your baby while your baby is in the NICU. Some people call it “kangaroo care.” No matter what you call it, it will benefit both you and your baby.

During skin-to-skin care, your baby will be placed against you, dressed only in a hat and diaper, with a blanket over her back. Contact with your skin will help your preterm infant feel calm and relaxed, and it will help your baby gain weight. It will also help your body produce milk that protects your baby from bacteria while in the hospital. You should plan to spend at least an hour every day holding your baby like this while she is in the hospital.

Each time you feed your baby, you’re stimulating your body to make more milk.

Try to pump your milk right after holding your baby against your skin. This contact will help release hormones that allow you to pump more milk, and this will help you build your milk supply. The hospital will most likely be able to provide a hospital-grade pump you can use. Bring your pump with you to the hospital if they don’t have one you can use.

BEST for late preterm infants

Late preterm infants are born between 36-39 weeks old. Although they often look like mature babies but smaller, they often lack some of the developmental skills that a full-term baby should have, so we have to help them with feeding:

Baby should feed every 2-3 hours to help them learn to self-regulate. At first, you may need to wake baby to feed.

Express after each feeding and offer extra human milk by cup or spoon (link to Alternative Feeding Methods) to help infant, as the sometimes struggle with transferring enough milk.

Skin-to-skin keeps baby warmer and helps with weight gain and growth.

Take time to change positions and keep infant awake and engaged. Baby may tire more easily, and need smaller, more frequent feedings.