The Importance of Nursing Your Preemie

Doulas help pregnant women explore questions about pregnancy, labor, breastfeeding, and postpartum care. As trained professionals, we provide informational as well as physical and emotional support to the birthing woman. But I also bring my personal experience as a mother who’s given birth to two children.

When I was pregnant with my son, I experienced natural birth in a hospital setting. However, three hours later my son began to experience complications due to his low birth weight. He was admitted to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) where he stayed for nearly three weeks. I was determined to breast feed, but found it very difficult. The NICU nurses and lactation consultants encouraged me to pump milk for my baby, and to hold him skin-to-skin when he was ready. I learned so much from this experience, knowledge I’ve shared with my clients.


The importance of pumping

Serving as a doula, I supported a mother and father with an unexpected complication with their newborn. I answered questions about the NICU and encouraged the mom to pump. She was determined to have a positive nursing relationship with her newborn, and I was able to encourage her efforts. Many parents don’t realize that having a preemie does not prevent you from providing your newborn with the nourishment that comes from breast milk.

Dr. Julie Ware is a local pediatrician and vocal advocate of breastfeeding. Ware understands the barriers to breastfeeding infants who may be dealing with complications.

 “Often times a baby who needs admission to the NICU, whether for prematurity or for other illnesses, is unable to begin feeding at all,” says Ware. “And if so, unable to coordinate sucking, swallowing, and breathing, which are required for breast or even bottle feeding.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics, in its statement on breastfeeding and the use of human milk, supports the use of breast milk for preemies and infants dealing with health challenges. It states “the potent benefits of human milk are such that all preterm infants should receive human milk. Mother’s own milk, fresh or frozen should be the primary diet. If mother’s own milk is unavailable despite significant lactation support, pasteurized donor milk should be used.”

“Breast milk contains special enzymes that formula doesn’t have that help to increase the amount of nutrients the baby’s body absorbs,” notes Sarah Stockwell, an independent childbirth educator and lactation counselor and educator.


Nursing encourages bonding

While it may take a while for some infants with health challenges to be ready to nurse at the breast, there are some practical things you can do to establish your supply of nutrient-rich breast milk. The first milk a mother produces is colostrum. It is also referred to as “liquid gold” because of the special immune factors it provides your infant. If you cannot nurse your baby directly, the hospital staff can assist you in knowing how to collect this important first milk.

It is also recommended that mothers use a hospital-grade electric breast pump while separated from their baby. Mothers should pump every two to three hours, and should also pump at least one time per night, since that is when hormone prolactin is at its highest.

Kangaroo care allows the baby to be placed wearing only a diaper at the mother’s bare chest. It has proven to be an effective way to increase a mother’s milk supply, and the skin-to-skin contact can be positive for both mother and child. The NICU staff can assist you in knowing when your baby is ready to be held this way.

“Breastfeeding is a way for the mother to feel connected to her baby after they have been separated,” says Emily Kearney, a La Leche League leader and certified lactation counselor. “Once the baby is ready to nurse at the breast, nursing will bring mother and baby together and encourage bonding, which can help make up for the time they had to be apart.”

Getting support and encouragement from family, friends, and lactation specialists is critical in establishing and maintaining the nursing relationship. It may be challenging to go to all of effort to breastfeed, but it’s worth it — for    both mother and child.


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