Pregnancy and baby

Breastfeeding a premature baby

If your baby is born prematurely, breast milk will help their vulnerable tummy to mature and fight infection. Breast milk is easier for their stomachs to digest than infant formula. It also contains hormones and growth factors that help your baby grow and become stronger. 

Find out more about how breastfeeding benefits you and your baby's health.

Skin-to-skin contact with a premature baby

As soon as possible, you’ll be encouraged to spend time holding your baby against your skin. This is called Kangaroo Care. Your baby will be dressed just in a nappy, and then placed inside your top or blouse so that they can be held securely against your skin.

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

How to breastfeed a premature baby

If your baby is born early, it's even more important that you're supported to breastfeed. Even if you and/or your baby aren't well enough to breastfeed directly from the breast, spending as much time as possible close together helps to promote breastfeeding and boost breast milk production. Every feed that your baby consumes is valuable; some people call it ‘liquid gold’. Even if your baby is not ready to feed, you'll need to express your breast milk in order to build up your supply. See the video at the bottom of the page for more information.

Expressing milk if your baby is premature

If your baby is premature and in a neonatal unit, the hospitals will usually be able to lend you a hospital-grade electric breast pump for expressing your milk. If they can't lend you one, you can also hire one. Contact a breastfeeding organisation (go to Breastfeeding help and support for contact details) to find out about hiring one of these pumps or speak to a local supporter on the National Breastfeeding Helpline 0300 100 0212.

It's recommended that you express eight to 10 times a day, including at least once at night, to keep your milk supply up.

The staff in your neonatal unit, your midwife or peer supporter can advise you on how to increase your milk supply, how to encourage your milk flow, and how to use the breast pump. Always ask for help if you have any concerns or questions.

Donor milk

Some hospitals have a milk bank or are able to provide donated breast milk from carefully screened women so that your baby can have donor breast milk. Where your own breast milk or donor breast milk isn't available, infant formula can be supplied until you're producing enough breast milk.

If you're unable to express enough of your own breast milk for your baby or babies, ask your midwife or neonatal nurse for information about donor milk.

Other milks

The doctor may suggest that your newborn needs milk other than your own. In some hospitals, supplements are sometimes introduced if it's difficult for you to produce enough breast milk for your baby, particularly if you’ve been unwell or had to wait a while before starting to express.

Fortifiers, which contain a mixture of minerals, vitamins and protein, are sometimes used in some hospitals.

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 so that 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 they're confident feeders. This process will encourage their sucking reflex and help them get used to the new way of feeding.


Breastfeeding your sick or pre-term 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:

Next review due:

Page last reviewed: 02/10/2012

Next review due: 02/10/2014

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