Ill or very tiny babies may not be able to breastfeed at first, but breastmilk is exactly what they need. In fact, it’s so important that some hospitals have even set up human milk banks to provide breastmilk for babies in the special care baby unit (SCBU) if their mothers are unable to feed them.
Babies born early are particularly vulnerable to some dangerous conditions such as neonatal necrotising enterocolitis, a very serious bowel disorder, and breastmilk protects against this. These babies especially benefit from the antibodies, hormones, enzymes and growth factors contained in breastmilk. Breastmilk is also easy to digest and breastfeeding will help you feel closer to your baby while he or she is in the SCBU.
If your baby is not ready to feed directly from the breast, it is important that you begin to express milk as soon as possible after the birth. This will help your milk production and ensure it is established for when your baby is ready to breastfeed. In the meantime, expressed breastmilk can be given to your baby through a tube, or in a syringe or cup. You can find instructions on how to express and store breastmilk here. Hand expressing is usually better at this stage, because it’s closer to a baby’s natural feeding action than a pump.
Express as often as you can – six to eight times in 24 hours is ideal, including at least once in the night. The idea is to try to match a newborn baby’s feeding pattern. At first, you’ll only be able to express small amounts, but don’t worry, that’s all your baby needs in the first few days. After two to five days the amount will increase and the SCBU staff can advise you on whether to continue expressing by hand or change to using a breast pump.
Even the very tiniest babies benefit from skin-to-skin contact and being held close to your breast. Being close to you helps your baby to practise rooting for the breast and to get positioning and attachment right. The SCBU staff will encourage you to do this and to try breastfeeding when your baby seems ready. It may take several attempts, so be patient. At first, some babies may only open their mouths to latch on but not suck. Expressing a few drops of milk by hand onto your baby’s lips can help encourage him or her to latch on. Keep trying once or twice every day and eventually your baby will learn.
It’s best to avoid bottle feeding while your baby is learning to breastfeed, as the sucking action is different and may confuse your baby. Cup feeding can be a good alternative at this time. The SCBU staff will help you with this. For more information download our leaflet Breastfeeding your ill or premature baby.
Breastmilk is so important for ill or premature babies, that many hospitals have begun using milk banks to supply human breastmilk to these vulnerable babies if their mothers’ own milk is not available. This may be due to poor supply or because the mother needs drug therapy which would be bad for the baby if it passed into the breastmilk.
The Sperrin Lakeland Human Milk Bank was established in August 2000 and is the only human milk bank in Ireland. Mothers who are breastfeeding their own babies but have excess milk donate the extra to the milk bank. The Sperrin Milk Bank had over 100 donors throughout Ireland in 2002 but more are always needed. Donors are screened before their milk can be accepted and each bottle of milk is checked for the presence of bacteria before it is issued from the bank.
Human donor milk is now used for the care of babies having surgical repair for congenital abnormalities of the gastrointestinal tract, such as gastroschisis, intestinal obstruction, colostomy reversal and diaphragmatic hernias. The availability of banked milk has drastically reduced the time these babies have to be kept in the neonatal unit and has been shown to have a beneficial effect on gut healing and the prevention of malabsorption difficulties.
For further information on the Sperrin Lakeland Human Milk Bank, please contact:
Human Milk Bank
Tel: 028 6862 2912