Premature babies or preemies are infants born before the 37th week of pregnancy. Preterm babies are smaller and frailer than full-term babies. They require extended hospital stays, while some need to be put in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Some premature infants even need a blood transfusion to help them survive. They need extra care and help, especially in feeding.
Nothing is more warming than the sight of a mom reunited with her newborn during rooming-in.
The raw emotion of love, the smiles, and sometimes tears are all worth all the hard labor in the delivery room.
With parents in the NICU waiting for their preemies, it is partly tears and strangling anxiety. From holding the newborn to feeding and caring, preemie parents have a fair share of both the joy and the struggle.
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Why are babies born prematurely?
Once when I was training in maternity care, we never forgot this young mom crying over a miscarriage.
We remembered her not because she was only in her late teens but it’s mostly because she was the only Caucasian ever admitted to our ward. (It was uncommon in the country where I came from).
I happened to chance her in one of my pediatrician friend’s clinics one time more than a year later. She was bringing her baby for a check-up, and we had this small talk.
Turned out she gave birth successfully at last, but only at 28 weeks.
I could see joy and relief in her eyes as she recounted her struggle. Those emotions were sooner replaced by anxiety as her baby appeared to be sick, which explained why she was there. Preemies are prone to sickness, which is still a struggle for parents.
The fact that she gave birth to a preemie is understandable, granting her past miscarriage. Sadly, there’s little that moms can do to prevent it.
A mother’s health and her medical condition cause the early delivery of the baby. But the causes are not at all specific as there are different underpinning risk factors.
Here are some of the preterm pregnancy risks according to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists:
- Medical History (past preterm birth, problems with the cervix, or past delivery injury)
- Pregnancy Complications (multiple birth, infections, and bleeding)
- Lifestyle factors (smoking, low pregnancy weight, dietary deficiencies)
- Age (being less than 17 or older than 35 during pregnancy)
Preventing premature birth
📌 A normal birth happens from 38 to 42 weeks. If a baby is born before that, it is called preterm delivery. Birth after the 42nd week is called post-term or late delivery.
Giving birth from the normal gestational age is beyond a mom’s control. But regular prenatal care can do so much to ensure a healthy and low-risk pregnancy.
Contrary to what some people may think, not all preemies need to go through a NICU.
Most of them are born healthy, although they are smaller and a little delicate to hold.
Sometimes they only need a couple more weeks in the nursery for special medical care and attention.
Is feeding a preemie difficult?
All premature babies need to stay longer in the nursery.
Healthcare providers will keep them under their care to make them physically ready for the world.
They are often under observation for short-term complications like sleep apnea. So more often, under normal conditions, moms are discharged earlier than their babies.
During this time, it can be challenging for most moms. She can go home, but she needs to return to the hospital to feed her little one and offer him skin-to-skin contact.
The next weeks will be mostly about driving to and from the hospital while enduring the pain after childbirth.
But this is just one of the challenging parts of the journey. Preterm babies lack the skills that they need in feeding: sucking, swallowing, and coordinated breathing. He will also have difficulty in latching.
Even full-term babies struggle with it, but more so with preemies. Each feeding session is not only demanding. It can also get scary as there is the likelihood of the baby gagging and choking on his milk.
The other challenges of feeding include:
- Oral aversion (baby won’t suck)
- Baby keeps dozing off and sleeping
- Holding his breath
6 premature baby feeding tips
Breast milk is a golden food for all babies. But premature milk is especially valuable and essential for preemies. He needs it more to speed up his development and help his body combat infection.
Babies arriving earlier than expected are deprived of nutrients that they could get from the placenta. Thus, his mom’s breast milk has a lot to do to supplement these needs.
If your preemie is in the NICU, he will most likely get his food through an IV or a gastric tube. Sometimes, moms can assist nurses in tube feeding her pumped breast milk.
All the while, NICU staff will encourage your baby to eventually get used to nipple feeding. When he is able and ready, he can transition from the tubes to breastfeeding or formula feeding.
Here are some of our helpful tips:
1. Breastfeed on demand
Babies feed around eight to twelve times a day. As a rule of thumb, feed your preemie by the clock to make sure he does not go hungry. But you can also watch for hunger cues and feed him as soon as he shows signs.
2. Keep your baby awake during feeding
Preemies tend to spend more time sleeping – and yes, even during feeding.
Try to keep him awake to help him establish a routine. If you think he dozes off but still hungry, try to wake him up and reintroduce feeding.
3. Respect his feeding cues
When your baby is upset when you reintroduce the nipple, don’t force the feeding. This will only give him a bad vibe about his feeding time. Let him sleep if really wants to.
4. Use the kangaroo care
Kangaroo care is the skin-to-skin contact that the baby needs after birth. This method will not only make breastfeeding easier but may also help moms increase lactation, which will redound to their baby’s benefit.
Making kangaroo care some 30 to 60 minutes before each feeding will give your preemie time to wake up and be ready for his food.
5. Keep a feeding-friendly environment
Keep your baby away from distractions like loud noises and bright lights.
A quiet and dim environment may do the trick, but it may lull him to sleep too. So talk to him, sing him a song, and tell him a story while you’re at it.
It could keep him stimulated and make him love his feeding sessions.
6. Burp your baby
Burping is important for all babies to release the gas they ingested during feeding. It will relieve him from gastro problems and ease your preemie’s reflux too.
How will I be able to feed my baby if I have no breast milk?
Right after giving birth to your preemie, you will be encouraged to start expressing breast milk. Don’t waver with the effort. He needs this more than anything.
Premature milk is different in composition as it is specially tailored to meet his needs.
Pumping will also help establish breast milk so that mom can be ready once her baby is. If you think you have a problem, visit a lactation consultant.
Can I formula-feed my baby instead?
We will never stop saying breastfeeding is the best for your preemie. But as they have difficulties in latching, feeding expressed milk is a viable option.
Pumping can be time-consuming and painful, but it is all worth it.
In the hospital, your baby may receive a Human Milk Fortifier (HMF) too. If you choose to formula feed your baby, consult your pediatrician.
Newborns need a special formula for feeding, and your preemie needs a specialized one for him too.
Often, your doctor may require alternating formula with breastfeeding. It is to ensure your baby is still getting the best to help him catch up on growth.
How much milk does my preemie need?
Your hospital staff will provide this information for you before discharge. You can use the gauge during feeding at home.
Bring your preemie to the pediatrician regularly to see if he is gaining weight or needs more milk.
But according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, newborn preemies may need as much milk his mom can express in one hundred minutes within 24 hours.
Caring for your little warrior is challenging and anxiety-inducing.
Often, support groups and other preemie moms can take so much weight on your shoulder. They can provide valuable information to help you deal with your little one. So, don’t hesitate to tap them in your area for support.
Don’t worry; the demand will not take forever. Eventually, your baby will catch up on growth and development. You only need a little investment of time, effort, and bravery to help ease your baby through the transition.
Do you have a story to tell? Give us a comment in the space below. Let’s help other moms undergoing the same struggle right now by inspiring them with your preemie baby’s journey. Hats off to all the preemie parents out there!