When I first got pregnant, I was admittedly clueless about taking care of an infant. I was more or less dependent on the bits of advice from my mom, OB, and Pedia. Fast-forward to 6 years later and as a mom to a kiddo and expecting another one, I thought I was more or less better prepared. Not in all aspects per se, but maybe even in terms of breastfeeding, considering that I breastfed my firstborn for 2 and ½ years. But apparently, there’s still so much more to learn.
As I said in my birthing story, my second daughter was born early. Born at 35 weeks, she’s considered a premature baby or a preemie. Studies have shown that until about 32 weeks, babies can’t coordinate sucking, swallowing, and breathing well enough to breast or bottle-feed. And babies less than about 37 weeks are not strong enough to take enough nutrition by mouth to gain weight. Hence, breastfeeding premature babies or babies born before the 37th week of pregnancy might be challenging, as I also found out myself. But it is not impossible. If you are a premie mama or at risk for preterm birth, here are a few tips on how to get your breastfeeding journey with your premie off to a good start:
Pump early and pump well.
The general rule in pumping is to start at 6 weeks postpartum to lessen the risk of oversupply. But preemie moms are an exception to this rule, especially if their baby is not well enough to latch. Granted, you might feel overwhelmed by both your birth experience and your baby’s condition to focus on pumping ASAP, but doing so could do wonders for your breastfeeding journey. Ideally, your first pumping session should be 6 hours after birth.
Aside from pumping early, preemie moms should also consider pumping often, as doing so can help them establish their milk supply and produce enough milk for their baby. You should pump about 8 times a day — every 2 to 3 hours during the day and every 3 to 4 hours at night. At the same time, you should also consider the pump you use. If you’re still on the fence about buying a hospital-grade or quality pump and can’t find one to loan, you can check the hospital where your baby is confined if you can use their in-house one. Or you can talk to your lactation consultant and learn how to hand express.
Spend time with your baby.
Granted, this might be hard especially if the NICU/hospital where he’s at is quite far from your home. But spending time with him as much as you can, will do wonders for your milk supply, latch, and even weight gain. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- If your baby is allowed to latch, try to direct-feed as much as you can. And be patient about it. My preemie was allowed to do so and I was thankful that our pedia requested me to direct feed her exclusively for the first week of life — yes, even after I was discharged a day after birth from the hospital. Admittedly, staying in the hospital without a room a day postpartum was tiring and stressful (I had to make do with the hospital’s common places and Airbnb’s to stay in and clean up), but I think those first few days ultimately helped with her latch and our breastfeeding journey.
- As previously stated, preemies can be more challenging to breastfeed compared to full-term babies, so preemie moms have to be a bit more patient in letting their babies latch. I’ve found that it takes more work and effort in breastfeeding a preemie than a full-term baby, especially during the early days. For my eldest, who was a full-term baby, latching on to feed came naturally, even as a newborn. All I had to do was offer her my nipples. But with my second-born preemie, every latch felt like the first and she had to relearn how to every time. It can be quite frustrating for anyone. But knowing that it’s normal for preemies to have this kind of difficulty is also helpful for us moms. It sets our expectations and prevents us from feeling impatient or inadequate whenever our preemie refuses to latch.
- Do kangaroo care. Kangaroo care is a method of holding a baby while maintaining as much skin contact as possible. Benefits include increased milk supply for mommy, better weight gain for baby, and better breastfeeding for both. To do this, moms should wear a tube top which they can use to tuck their baby in (only wearing diapers).
Always remember that you’re not alone. Whether it’s your loved ones or even other moms, help is almost always at hand, you just need to ask for it. If you’re worried about your breastmilk supply or your preemie’s latch, consider seeking the support of a lactation consultant. She can help you and your baby attain the most comfortable latch. You can also ask the hospital regarding their breastmilk resources — most hospitals have established milk banks with donated breastmilk, which they can provide to babies in their NICU. If your hospital does not offer this, you can reach out to mommy support groups and even dedicated mommy stores who also help out breastfeeding moms (such as Breastfeeding Pinays or The Parenting Emporium). Last, but not the least, if you’re feeling overwhelmed and tired over you and your baby’s situation, talk to your partner/husband, other mom friends, or even OB. Being a preemie mom can be emotionally and physically draining, so be sure to surround yourself with warmth and love. Always remember that you got this, mama.