Note: The information featured on this page is currently under review, and will be updated in due course. Please ensure that you speak with your health care professional about any queries you may have about the issues covered here.
Deciding whether to breastfeed
Your baby being in a neonatal unit may have come as an enormous shock to you, but the good news is that you can still do many of the things you planned, including breastfeeding. Even if you have decided against breastfeeding, you could express your breast milk for a little while.
Mothers transfer protective antibodies to their babies through the placenta during the last three months of pregnancy. This process is broken when the baby is born prematurely. For this reason, premature babies are especially vulnerable to infection. The good news is that mothers also give their babies antibodies in breast milk. By providing breast milk, you give your baby an extra line of defence.
Advantages of breast milk
- Breast milk provides antibodies that protect your baby against bacteria and viruses.
- It boosts your baby’s immune system and protects against infections, such as stomach and chest infections.
- It provides nutrients, growth factors and hormones that help your baby grow and develop during the vital early months after birth.
- It is very easy to digest and is absorbed more easily than formula milks.
- It allows you to have skin-to-skin contact with your baby. Research has shown that this is very beneficial, especially for premature babies and it has been observed that babies spend less time crying and more time in deep sleep as a result of skin-to-skin contact with their parents.
- Breastfeeding is good for your health too. It can help you regain your pre-pregnancy figure, since any extra fat stored by the body during pregnancy is used to produce breast milk. There is also some evidence that breastfeeding reduces your risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
The first milk mothers produce is called colostrum. Colostrum is thicker and more yellow in colour than breastmilk. It contains a rich mix of proteins, including antibodies that can help protect against infections.
Your baby may not be ready to feed straight from your breast, so you can provide milk from your breast by using a technique called expressing. Expressing breast milk is a skill that can take a time to learn, and the staff looking after your baby will give you positive support and practical help with this.
If you choose to breastfeed, you should express your milk as soon as possible. Breast milk can be frozen and stored until your baby is ready to feed. As with all newborn babies, some find breastfeeding easier than others. This can depend on factors such as the baby’s age, maturity and his or her medical condition. It may take slightly longer to establish breastfeeding with premature babies, or require extra support from the staff on your unit. At birth, breastfeeding may have to be delayed so feeding is provided by tube feeding where a tiny tube is passed through the nose into your baby’s stomach.
Giving breastmilk is something best done by you and it may help you to feel closer to your baby, but you must feel happy with whatever you decide to do.
For more information on breastfeeding contact The Breastfeeding Network on 0300 100 0212.
Looking after yourself