Preemie breastfeeding takes patience and practice, but it can be done. If you’re a NICU mom, you may be wondering how feeding your preemie is going to work. Can my preemie even breastfeed? How often should I breastfeed? What are the benefits of breastfeeding? Should I pump instead of breastfeeding or do both?
These are the same questions I asked myself when our mono mono twin girls were in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). Here is my experience and what I learned about preemie breastfeeding to help you along your NICU journey. If something in this post helps you out today, well then…writing this was a success. 🙂
With that said, here’s everything you need to know about preemie breastfeeding.
How Preemie Breastfeeding Works
Depending on when your baby was born prematurely will determine when and if they are ready to breastfeed.
If your baby is born before 34 weeks.
One of the most common questions new moms ask is “will my preemie be able to breastfeed?” The answer is usually yes, but it may take a little longer for your sweet pea to adjust to breastfeeding if born before 34 weeks.
Since a preemie tires out easily and learning how to breastfeed is a lot of work for their little bodies, it takes time and patience to adjust. In the meantime, here are three things you can do to prep your babe for breastfeeding.
This type of care is an evidence-based practice to help babies in the NICU thrive and develop. More importantly, it helps your baby use their natural instincts and feeding reflexes to begin sucking and swallowing.
Skin-to-skin is a powerful thing you can do to prep your babe when it comes time to breastfeed. So get your snuggles on!
Non-nutritive breastfeeding is when a baby is going through the motions of nursing but not drinking milk. Basically, you are acting as their “human pacifier”. It’s a great way to practice breastfeeding when your babe is tired or needs comfort.
I practiced non-nutritive breastfeeding with each of my girls. My lactation consultant told me to pump right before I would do a non-nutritive session to empty my milk. The goal is to encourage feeding cues, exploration, and familiarity with being held near your breast.
Plus, it should help increase your milk supply! At least it did for me. I noticed I would pump more anytime I would do a non-nutritive session.
Offer A Pacifier During Feeds
While your babe is being fed through their feeding tube, offer them their pacifier. By doing this, it helps your preemie associate feeding cues like sucking while their belly is getting full.
You can even kick this up a notch by offering a pacifier during skin-to-skin WHILE your babe is being fed. I did this a lot with both my girls.
Depending on where your babe’s feeding tube is placed may impact how easy it is to suck and hold the pacifier on their own.
For instance, if your sweet pea’s feeding tube is through their mouth, it may be more difficult for them to suck on it. You may need to hold your finger on the pacifier to assist them.
On the other hand, if the feeding tube is through their nose, it may be easier to suck on the pacifier.
A great cue to know if your baby is interested in their pacifier is by gently putting it to their lips. If they open their mouth, then offer it to them. If they don’t, try it again later or another day. Never force a pacifier into their mouth as this may create a negative experience.
If your baby is born after 34 weeks.
You can still do the same techniques offered above to prep your babe for breastfeeding while trying to do actual breastfeeding.
Most babies begin learning how to breastfeed around 36 weeks or after and those with health problems could take longer.
To know if your preemie is ready to breastfeed, watch for these cues:
- Sucking on a pacifier
- Alert and active
- Sucking on their hands or fingers
- Opening and closing their mouth
- Rooting (searching for the nipple with their mouth)
Lua and Lily Mae were “scored” daily on their feeding readiness by our NICU nurses. These cues were some of the main ones they looked for.
For example, if Lua showed an interest in her pacifier and sucked on it, she would get a feeding score of “2” that day (which is the best score). A score of “0” would be showing no interest at all. A score of “1” is if a baby attempted to suck on the pacifier but was too sleepy or they opened their mouth interested, but wouldn’t take it.
The more “2’s” Lua and Lily Mae scored the more likely they were to breastfeed and bottle feed.
Work with a lactation consultant to get comfortable breastfeeding your babe.
Your hospital should have a lactation person ready to assist you so just ask your NICU nurse.
I would suggest working with a lactation professional to know what to do with preemie breastfeeding. They have all the tricks and tips on how to create a positive experience for both of you. From holding positions to the cues to look for of when to breastfeed.
Even if you’ve breastfed before, having a preemie is a completely different experience from a full-term newborn. Seeking professional guidance will help you receive the best possible outcome to breastfeed.
The Benefits of Preemie Breastfeeding
There are plenty of benefits to breastfeeding your preemie.
Breast milk is packed with nutrients.
First and foremost, breast milk is packed with nutrients that are essential for your preemie’s growth and development. These nutrients include amino acids, lipids, minerals, and vitamins. You are feeding your babe the best milk there is your milk.
Easier to digest.
Preemies’ digestive systems are immature and need time to develop which is why your breast milk is the perfect food for their tiny bellies. It’s a lot easier for them to digest than formula.
It promotes healthy intestinal flora.
This is crucial for preemies who are at risk of developing intestinal problems.
Reduce the incidence of ear infections.
Due to a preemie’s immune system not being as developed as a full-term baby’s, they are at a higher risk for ear infections. Breast milk contains antibodies that can help fight infection, and studies show that breastfed babies are at lower risk for ear infections.
Strengthens your preemie’s immune system.
Breast milk strengthens your babe’s immune system (particularly their gut), which can help them fight off infection.
Helps mamas lose weight.
Last but not least, breastfeeding can help moms get back to their natural weight faster. For reals!
You burn anywhere from 200 to 600 calories per pump or breastfeeding sesh (depending on the amount of milk you express). So get your pump on or latch on!
How Often Should I Breastfeed My Preemie?
It’s recommended to pump and express your milk up to 8 times per day. This is normally based upon the number of feeds your preemie is getting.
For Lua and Lily Mae, they ate 8 times per day (every 3 hours) in the NICU. To keep my milk supply up, I would pump the number of times they were fed which was 8 times each day (including once at night).
I’m not going to lie, breast pumping is a challenging thing to keep up with…
Especially, when you have other kids at home, a job, or life just happens BUT it is one of the most rewarding things you can do for your babe.
I felt so helpless at times when our girls were in the NICU. Everything was out of our control and in the hands of people we didn’t know. Incredible professionals of course whom we are forever grateful for, but it’s tough not being able to go home with your baby. At least, breast pumping was something I could do to help contribute to their health and growth.
Now if you can’t breast pump or breastfeed, it’s OK.
For my first kiddo, I was unable to do either so formula it was! Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. The best thing you can do is to give your baby love and be present with them!
To Wrap It Up
Preemie breastfeeding comes with its fair share of challenges, but it’s so worth it!
Not only is your breast milk the best milk, but it contains all the essential nutrients your babe needs. Even if you can’t pump or breastfeed, again it’s OK. There’s donor milk you can do or formula your hospital recommends. More importantly, giving your baby LOVE is the best medicine of all.
Remember to take things one day at a time and don’t be afraid to ask for help from your NICU nurses or lactation consultant. Above all, enjoy this special time with your little one. 🙂
Until the next post, I’m sending you all the positive parent vibes!
Thank you for being here today!
Do you have more preemie breastfeeding tips for other NICU moms? Let us know in the comments below. We could all use a little help along the way. 🙂
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About The Author
Lindsey is a mom of two little miracles, MoMo twin girls, Lily Mae and Lua, plus one amazing older bro, Cody.
“Consider me a ‘blog super nerd’ at heart. I love helping busy parents learn how to blog because it has personally been life-changing for me and my family. Plus, sharing my experience to help others on their twinhood journey is so rewarding!”
She is the founder of Twin Mom Blog Nerd, Content Creator/Co-Founder of the blog Intensive Therapy for Kids, and Co-Founder of The LENN Foundation 501(c)(3) charity that helps children with cerebral palsy (like her sweet nephew, Lenny) receive grants for intensive therapies to thrive. ♥
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