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Pregnancy and baby

Breastfeeding your premature baby

You can still breastfeed if your baby is born early. Your breast milk:

  • helps protect your baby from infections  premature babies are more prone to these
  • contains hormones, nutrients and growth factors that help your baby grow and develop
  • is easier for babies to digest than formula milk

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 are born to get your milk supply going. Then you can start breastfeeding once your baby is 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 blouse so they can be held securely against your skin.

This skin-to-skin contact helps you feel close to your baby and more confident with them. Your partner can enjoy skin-to-skin contact as well.

Expressing milk if your baby is premature

It's recommended you express 8 to 10 times a day to begin with, including at least once at night, to keep your milk supply up. You'll probably only express a few drops to begin with.

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 one of these pumps, or phone the National Breastfeeding helpline on 0300 100 0212.

The staff, your midwife or a peer supporter can give you advice about how to increase your milk supply. Peer supporters are mums who have breastfed themselves and are trained to help other breastfeeding mums.

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

Babies don't learn to co-ordinate the sucking, swallowing and breathing needed for feeding until about 34 to 36 weeks of pregnancy.

If your baby was born before this, to begin with they may need to have your breast milk via a feeding tube that goes through their nose or mouth into their stomach. The staff in the neonatal unit can show you how to do this for your baby.

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 with an intravenous (IV) line that goes straight into a 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.

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 they're not overwhelmed by the milk and become tired too quickly. 

At first, your baby may only lick the breast, then next time take a few sucks until, gradually, they're confident feeders.

You can combine tube feeding with breastfeeding until your baby is getting everything they need from the breast only.

Visit to see mums talking about feeding their sick or premature babies.

Breastfeeding a preterm baby

Breast milk is especially important for premature and sick babies. This Best Beginnings video follows four mothers who breastfed their premature babies.

Media last reviewed: 22/10/2014

Next review due: 22/10/2016

Page last reviewed: 02/10/2016

Next review due: 02/10/2019


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