At Children's Hospital & Medical Center, we encourage all new mothers to breastfeed during the first year of the baby's life. Breastfeeding provides numerous health benefits to both you and your newborn. And for premature infants or babies with special medical needs, the nutritional benefits gained from human milk are even greater.
Our lactation specialists are available to educate all new mothers about the importance of human milk. Human milk in the NICU is seen as an essential medicine for babies. Your milk is made to meet your baby's specific needs. For instance, during the first few days of milk production, a mother produces colostrum. Colostrum is higher in protein and antibodies in preterm milk than in a mother's milk who delivers full term. Colostrum is especially important for premature infants to promote maturation and protection of the gastrointestinal system. Breast milk provides numerous other benefits to the premature baby. These include:
- Premature infants are at higher risk for necrotizing enterocolitis, a condition in the bowel of small babies. Breast milk has been shown to decrease this risk because of the high concentration of proteins and antibodies only found in human milk.
- Antibodies passed from the mother to her baby through her milk help protect baby from infection and disease.
- Improved development of the eyes and brain.
- Reduced risk for allergies and asthma.
- Protection from some cancers and obesity.
For the mother, breastfeeding provides these benefits:
- Promotes a special relationship between you and baby. Providing your milk is something only you can do.
- Returns your uterus to the size it was before pregnancy more quickly.
- Burns more calories, which may help you lose the weight you gained during pregnancy.
- Reduces the risk of ovarian cancer and breast cancer.
- Keeps bones strong, which helps protect against bone fractures in older age.
Once you have decided to provide your milk to your baby, a lactation specialist will meet with you to provide instruction and support. Your lactation specialist will instruct you on the importance of pumping your breasts every few hours starting the first day after birth to stimulate a good milk supply for your baby. Mothers who pump early and often tend to have the best milk supply. You will be assisted in acquiring a double electric breast pump for use around the clock. Frequent pumping will establish and maintain a good milk supply until your baby is able to maintain the milk supply on his or her own. This may be a few weeks after discharge from the NICU. The lactation specialist will teach you how to pump and how to collect and store your milk for use in the NICU.
Most premature babies will start by receiving their mother's milk through a special feeding tube until they are mature enough to start taking feedings by mouth. For every baby, the timing of oral feedings may be different. Your baby's doctor will determine when your baby can start feedings. A lactation specialist will help you learn to breastfeed your baby by assisting you with proper positioning and latching your baby correctly at the breast. They will also help you become comfortable with breastfeeding as your baby matures and develops, and provide counseling and support as you and your baby transition through each stage of feeding. They will provide a follow-up call after you take your baby home to provide any additional support or assistance you may need as you make the transition to life at home with your baby.
Mothers are encouraged to breastfeed for the first year of life as stated by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The nutritional benefits of breastfeeding continue beyond the first year as well. Continuing to breastfeed after the first year is encouraged as long it is mutually desired by both mother and baby. Any amount of human milk is beneficial to your baby. However long you decide to provide your milk to your baby is a gift to your baby that only you can provide and will last a lifetime.