Your breast milk is important to your baby at any age. Research shows that giving your premature baby your breast milk benefits their health as well as yours.
Among other things, your breast milk:
- helps protect your baby from infections, particularly of their gut (premature babies are more prone to these)
- contains hormones, nutrients and growth factors that help your baby to grow and develop
- is easier for your baby to digest than formula milk, because it's human milk specially designed by your body for your baby
See other benefits of breastfeeding.
If your baby is too small or sick to breastfeed, you'll need to start regularly expressing your breast milk soon after they're born to get your milk supply going. Then you can start breastfeeding once you and your baby are ready.
Even if you weren't planning to breastfeed, you could express your breast milk for a while and see how it goes.
Spending lots of time close together can help boost your breast milk supply and establish breastfeeding.
Skin-to-skin contact with your premature baby
As soon as possible, you'll be encouraged to spend time holding your baby against your skin. This is sometimes called kangaroo care.
Your baby will be dressed just in a nappy and then placed inside your top or under a blanket so they can be held securely against your skin.
This skin-to-skin contact helps you feel close to your baby. Your partner can enjoy this kind of contact as well.
For your premature baby, skin-to-skin contact:
- reduces stress and/or pain
- promotes healthy weight gain
- helps to establish breastfeeding
- helps them adapt to their environment
- helps to regulate and support their heart rate and breathing
For mums, skin-to-skin contact:
- helps prevent postnatal depression
- increases your confidence as a new parent
- supports the hormones that help with breast milk production and supply
For dads, holding your baby skin to skin:
- helps you bond with your baby – babies can hear both parents' voices in the womb and will be calmed by the sound of your voice as well as their mum's
- helps you feel more confident as a parent
Expressing milk if your baby is premature
It's recommended you express eight to 10 times a day to begin with, including at least once at night, to keep your milk supply up.
In the early days, it's often easier to express your milk by hand. Your midwife or a breastfeeding supporter can show you how.
You'll probably only express a few drops to begin with but, if you hand express often, this will increase.
In the early days you can collect your breast milk in a small, sterile cup and store it in a syringe. Every drop is beneficial for your baby.
Once you are producing more milk, you could try using a breast pump. If your baby is in a neonatal unit, the hospital will usually be able to lend you an electric breast pump for expressing your milk. If they can't lend you one, you can hire one.
Contact a breastfeeding organisation (see Breastfeeding help and support for contact details) to find out about hiring a pump, or phone the National Breastfeeding Helpline on 0300 100 0212.
The staff, your midwife or a breastfeeding supporter can give you advice about how to increase your milk supply. They can also show you how to encourage your milk to flow and how to use a breast pump.
Always ask for help early if you have any worries or questions.
Tube feeding your baby
Babies don't normally learn to coordinate the sucking, swallowing and breathing needed for feeding until about 34 to 36 weeks of pregnancy.
If your baby is born before this time, they may need to have your breast milk via a feeding tube to begin with. This goes through their nose or mouth into their stomach. The staff in the neonatal unit can show you how to feed your baby this way.
Breast milk fortifiers, which contain a mixture of minerals, vitamins and protein, may be added to your breast milk.
Babies who are very premature or sick may need to be fed via an intravenous (IV) line to begin with. A fluid containing nutrients is fed straight into your baby's vein.
Visit the Bliss website to read more about tube feeding.
Using donor breast milk
Some hospitals can provide donated breast milk for your baby to have until your own supply is established.
See the United Kingdom Association for Milk Banking (UKAMB) website for more about donor breast milk.
If donor breast milk isn't available, your baby can have formula milk until you're producing enough breast milk.
You may be able to find donor breast milk for sale on the internet. However, it's recommended you don't buy donor milk over the internet. This is because the source can't be confirmed and you can't be sure whether the donor or the milk has been screened for infections.
Moving on to breastfeeding your premature baby
While holding your baby, you may notice them try to move towards your breast. Gradually, as they develop and get stronger, they will be able to breastfeed directly.
The first time you try it, the hospital staff may ask you to express first, then put your baby to your breast. This is so your baby isn't overwhelmed when your milk lets down.
At first, your baby may only lick the breast, then next time take a few sucks until they gradually become happy and confident feeders.
You can combine tube feeding with breastfeeding until your baby is getting everything they need from the breast only.
Using a lactation aid (supplementer)
You could also consider using a lactation aid. This is a way of supplementing your baby's breastfeeds with either expressed breast milk or formula.
A tiny tube is taped next to your nipple so your baby can get milk via the tube as well as from your breast while attached to your breast. This helps to support your baby as they get used to attaching to the breast.
Visit healthtalk.org to see mums talking about feeding their sick or premature babies.
Got a breastfeeding question?
You can message the Start4Life Breastfeeding Friend chatbot for fast, friendly, trusted NHS advice anytime, day or night.