You’ve heard it time and time again: All babies need the traditional benefits of breast milk. But for preemies, the benefits are even more important — and in many cases, life saving. Premature babies, born at 37 weeks or earlier, are at a greater risk for having health problems early in life and can face other challenges later on, as well.
The American Academy of Pediatrics states breast milk has been linked to fewer deaths in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), as well as fewer long-term growth and brain disabilities. In addition, it has been shown to reduce the number of babies sent back to the hospital for illness 1 year after discharge from the NICU.
“When it comes to preemies, breast milk is no longer a lifestyle choice, but a health issue,” said Liz Maseth, a nurse and an Internationally Board certified lactation consultant at Akron Children’s. “At Akron Children’s, breast milk is a standard of care and one of the key factors in improving overall NICU infant outcomes.”
Breast milk has been shown to reduce the risk of many diseases, including respiratory and gastrointestinal infections, urinary tract and ear infections, allergy and asthma, obesity, diabetes, childhood leukemia, and the list goes on.
“Moms are acting as their babies’ first immune systems because an infant’s defense isn’t developed yet,” said Maseth. “Your milk is the only substance that contains antibodies and other nutrients that protect your baby from infections and disease. It also helps to build your baby’s immune system.”
Another reason breast milk is so important for preemies is because they need different nutrients than those who are carried the full 9 months.
Moms and their babies are so uniquely made that mom’s own milk has very specific components, or makeup, that is specifically tailored for her baby. Depending on the baby’s age, mom’s milk changes over time to meet the needs of her growing baby.
In fact, preterm breast milk is different than the breast milk in full-term babies. Preterm milk has higher concentrations of growth factors, hormones, antibodies and anti-inflammatory components.
“Breast milk offers unique nutritional and non-nutritional benefits to preemies to improve an infant’s growth and development to help them get out of the hospital sooner,” said Maseth. “If babies don’t receive it, they don’t do as well.”
In addition, a preterm infant’s digestive system may not be fully developed. Breast milk is easier for your baby to digest than formula and, perhaps most importantly, can help complete the development of your baby’s digestive system.
“Breast milk is one of the most powerful medicines that we use in the NICU because we just can’t reproduce it,” said Maseth. “It would be like making a specific medicine for each mom and baby, and that’s impossible.”
Because of the tremendous benefits of breast milk, Maseth encourages moms to develop a strong milk supply as soon as their baby is born, sometimes within the first hour after delivery. She recommends pumping 8 to 10 times a day to establish and maintain milk supply.
“When your baby’s in the NICU it’s very scary, and pumping is so time consuming. The thought of pumping 8 to 10 times a day is difficult,” said Maseth. “However, I like to remind my moms that pumping milk is the one thing they can control in the NICU, and it can help to save their baby’s life.”
There are many challenges to breastfeeding a premature infant in the NICU. Preemies may have a harder time latching, and feedings can take longer than a full-term baby. Let the nurses know you plan to breastfeed and ask the hospital’s lactation consultants for help and support. For more information, contact Liz Maseth at 330-543-4531.