Benefits of Breastfeeding for Premature Babies


Benefits of Breastfeeding for Premature Babies

Breastfeeding or providing mother’s milk is a powerful tool to support the health and development of premature babies. Premature babies, or preemies, are born before 37 weeks of gestation and may face a range of health challenges due to their underdeveloped organs and immune systems. Breast milk for premature infants is uniquely suited to support the growth and development of preemies, with a range of nutritional and immunological benefits that can help these babies thrive. In this article, we’ll explore the benefits of breastfeeding for premature babies.

The Importance of Breastfeeding Premature Babies

Breast milk is uniquely suited to meet the nutritional needs of premature babies. It contains a balance of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals that are tailored to support the growth and development of preemies. For example, breast milk contains higher levels of proteins that are easier to digest and absorb compared to formula. This can help support the growth of preemies who may struggle to gain weight on formula alone.

Breast milk is also rich in immune-boosting factors that can help protect preemies from infections. Preemies are at increased risk of infections due to their underdeveloped immune systems, so these protective factors are especially important. Breast milk contains antibodies, white blood cells, and other components that can help prevent infections and boost the immune system of preemies.

In addition to these nutritional and immunological benefits of breastfeeding, the purpose of breastfeeding is also to support the emotional bond between a mother and her preemie. The skin-to-skin contact that occurs during breastfeeding can promote feelings of comfort, safety, and security for both the mother and baby. This can be especially important for preemies who may spend extended periods of time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and may not be able to receive the same level of physical touch and comfort as full-term babies.

Breastfeeding premature babies can provide important health benefits and support their growth and development, both physically and emotionally.

Skin-to-skin contact with your premature baby

Breastfeeding or even non-nutritive suckling provides an opportunity for skin-to-skin contact between mother and baby. Skin-to-skin contact has been shown to have several benefits for premature babies, including:

Regulating body temperature: Premature babies have difficulty regulating their body temperature, and skin-to-skin contact can help keep them warm. The parent’s body heat helps to regulate the baby’s temperature, reducing the risk of hypothermia.

Promoting weight gain: Premature babies often struggle with gaining weight, and skin-to-skin contact can help stimulate their appetite and increase their weight gain.

Reducing stress: Being born prematurely and spending time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) can be stressful for both the baby and the parents. Skin-to-skin contact has been shown to reduce stress for both the baby and the parent and can help promote bonding between the parent and the baby.

Nutritional Benefits of Breastfeeding Preemies

Breastfeeding a premature baby can provide many nutritional benefits that can help support their growth and development. It is important for mothers to work with their healthcare providers to establish and maintain a successful breastfeeding relationship with their premature babies. Some of the key benefits are:

Provides optimal nutrition: Breast milk is the best source of nutrition for premature babies, as it is specifically designed to meet their unique nutritional needs. Breast Milk contains a balance of nutrients, including carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, that is specifically tailored to the needs of premature babies. It also contains essential vitamins and minerals, such as iron and calcium, that are important for their growth and development. It is easier for premature babies to digest, and it contains all the nutrients and immune factors they need to grow and develop.

Supports brain development: Breast milk contains essential fatty acids, such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA), that are important for brain development. Studies have shown that premature babies who are fed breast milk have better cognitive outcomes.

Reduces the risk of infections: Premature babies are at a higher risk of infections, and breast milk contains antibodies and other immune factors that can help protect them from infections.

Helps with digestion: Breast milk is easier to digest, and it can help prevent digestive problems, such as necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), which is a serious condition that can affect premature babies.

A 2014 Pubmed study found that breast milk-fed preemies had higher levels of immune cells and immune-boosting factors. The study also found that breast milk-fed preemies had a lower risk of infections and NEC, and had better growth and development compared to preemies who were fed formula.1

Immunological Benefits for Preemies

Breast Milk is an important source of immune-boosting factors for all babies, including premature infants. Here are some of the key immunity-boosting factors found in breastmilk that can be particularly beneficial for premature babies:

Antibodies: Breastmilk contains a variety of antibodies, including immunoglobulin A (IgA), which can help protect against infections. These antibodies are particularly important for premature babies, as they have a higher risk of infections due to their immature immune systems.

White blood cells: Breast Milk contains white blood cells, including T cells, B cells, and macrophages, which can help fight off infections and other foreign invaders.

Cytokines: Breast Milk contains cytokines, which are chemical messengers that help regulate the immune response. Cytokines can help stimulate the production of white blood cells and other immune cells, which can help protect against infections.

Prebiotics: Breast Milk contains prebiotics, which are complex carbohydrates that can promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. These beneficial bacteria can help support the immune system and protect against infections.

Lactoferrin: Breast Milk contains lactoferrin, a protein that has antimicrobial properties and can help protect against infections. Lactoferrin can also help promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.

Studies show that breastmilk facilitates the early maturation of intestinal barrier function or by providing passive barrier factors until the newborn’s natural barrier can develop.2

Donor human milk for Preemies

Donor human milk has been shown to be very useful for premature babies, especially those born at very low birth weights or with medical complications. While breast milk is the ideal food for all babies, it is especially important for premature babies, who have immature digestive systems and weaker immune systems. Breast milk contains a variety of nutrients, antibodies, and other factors that are crucial for the growth and development of premature babies.

In cases where a mother is unable to produce enough breast milk, or if the baby’s mother is unable to breastfeed for other reasons, donor human milk can provide many of the same benefits as the mother’s own milk. Donor human milk is collected from carefully screened, healthy lactating mothers, and is pasteurized to remove any potential bacteria or viruses. It is then frozen and stored until it is needed.

A study published in the Journal of Paediatrics found that human donor milk for preterm infants weighing less than 1250 grams was associated with a significantly lower risk of sepsis, a potentially life-threatening infection.3 Donor human milk can also help to promote growth and development, reduce hospital stays, and improve overall health outcomes for premature babies.

It is important to note that while donor human milk is a safe and effective alternative to a mother’s own milk, it should not be used as a replacement for a mother’s milk when it is possible to obtain it. When possible, efforts should be made to support and encourage breastfeeding and to provide mothers with the resources and support they need to produce enough milk for their babies.

Immunological Factors in Human Milk and Disease Prevention in the Preterm Infant

  1. Udall, J., Colony, P., Fritze, L., et al. Development of Gastrointestinal Mucosal Barrier. II. The Effect of Natural Versus Artificial Feeding on Intestinal Permeability to Macromolecules. Pediatr Res 15, 245–249 (1981).
  2. “Effect of Donor Milk on Severe Infections and Mortality in Very Low-Birth-Weight Infants: The Early Nutrition Study Randomized Clinical Trial” by Corinna Gebauer et al. (published in the Journal of Pediatrics in 2014

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