Breastfeeding a sick or premature baby
Babies born early are at risk of serious health conditions including neonatal necrotising enterocolitis, which is a bowel disease. Breast milk helps protect your baby against diseases and is easier to digest than formula because a mother’s body makes her milk especially for her baby. Breast milk also helps eyesight and brain development in premature babies.
A baby is premature when they’re born before the full nine months of pregnancy. Premature babies benefit from the antibodies, hormones, enzymes and growth factors in breast milk.
Expressing breast milk early
If your baby cannot feed from the breast, it’s important to express milk early, within six hours of your baby’s birth. This establishes your milk production so you have a supply when your baby is ready to breastfeed.
Hand expressing breast milk in the first few days allows you to collect colostrum more easily. You only express small amounts because that’s all your baby needs in their first few days.
After two to five days, your milk supply increases. Hospital staff looking after your baby can give you advice on how to express as much milk as possible. This could mean using a breast pump or expressing both breasts together.
Your baby’s feeding pattern
When expressing milk, you should express as often as possible to match your newborn baby’s feeding pattern. This means expressing about eight to 10 times in 24 hours, including once during the night.
Feeding breast milk to a sick or premature baby
A sick or premature baby can take expressed breast milk:
- through a tube
- in a syringe
- in a cup
As your baby grows and gets stronger, they can breastfeed directly. A small baby benefits from skin to skin contact with their mother and being close to their breast. Your baby will know your scent, taste and touch.
Keeping your baby close helps them:
- practise rooting for the breast
- find out how to attach correctly
Hospital staff will help you with breastfeeding when your baby is ready. You need to be patient as it can take several attempts to establish breastfeeding.
Sometimes your baby may open their mouth to latch on but they don’t suck. Hand expressing some drops of milk onto your baby’s lips can encourage them to latch on.
Your baby will learn to breastfeed if you do this once or twice every day.
The human milk bank provides donor breast milk for babies in hospital neonatal units if their mothers’ own milk is not available. The mother might have a low milk supply or need drug therapy, which could harm her baby if passed into her breast milk.
The Western Trust Milk Bank in Irvinestown accepts breast milk from donor mothers.