Breastfeeding Your Premature Infant at Home

When preparing to take your baby home from the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), an important topic to discuss with the NICU staff is your goal of breastfeeding at home. Your baby may have already tried latching on or full feedings while in the NICU, but breastfeeding a premature infant at home presents new challenges. Here are some things you can do to make this transition easier for you and baby.

Preparing for your baby’s discharge

  • For a few days, pump more milk than needed. This helps stimulate your body to make as much milk as possible. The more milk you’re producing, the easier it is for your baby to feed.
  • Find out your baby’s weight at the time he or she leaves the NICU. This will help you keep track of whether your baby is gaining weight at home.

Breastfeeding at home

  • Keep using positions recommended for preemies until the baby weighs at least 5 to 6 pounds.
  • Aim to feed your baby eight to 12 times a day. You may be advised to feed your baby when he or she seems to be hungry, not on a fixed schedule. This helps avoid tiring the baby. But in some cases, a fixed schedule is needed to make sure the baby is getting enough to eat. Your baby should be fed between scheduled feedings if he or she seems hungry.
  • Your baby should take as much milk as possible from one breast before switching to the other. This is because hindmilk (the last milk to flow from the breast) is richer in fat and calories than the milk that flows at first.
  • Many health care providers recommend pumping in addition to nursing your infant. This helps build up your milk supply.
  • If you have been prescribed supplements for your baby, they can be added to your pumped breast milk and given to your baby in a bottle.

How do I know if my baby is getting enough to eat?

Your pediatrician should evaluate your baby’s milk intake soon after discharge. This can be done either at an office visit or by phone. To make sure your baby is eating enough:

  • Count wet diapers and stools. The baby should have eight wet diapers a day, and at least one bowel movement each day.
  • Listen to make sure that your baby is swallowing during feedings. If not, the baby may be suckling but getting little or no milk.
  • After a feeding, your breasts should feel softer and empty. Your baby should seem satisfied.
  • Your baby will be weighed at the pediatrician’s office at each visit. You may also want to weigh your baby on an infant scale at home.
  • If you’re having problems breastfeeding, contact one of our lactation consultants at 917-579-8018. They are also available for in-person consultations.

Can I expect problems with breastfeeding because of prematurity?

Preemies may have trouble breastfeeding at first. These problems usually get better as the baby matures. Problems you may see include:

  • Difficulty getting the nipple placed correctly in the mouth
  • Falling asleep at the breast early in feeding
  • Difficulty coordinating suckling, swallowing, and breathing
  • A weak suckle (difficulty getting enough milk even during a long feeding)
  • Unpredictable sleeping patterns

Breastfeeding positions

Preemies need to feed in positions that provide extra support for the neck and head. These are the safest positions for nursing preemies:

The “football hold.” Place a pillow at your side next to the breast you’re going to use. Lay the baby on the pillow at breast height. Place the back of the baby’s head in the palm of your hand. Use your forearm to support the shoulders and spine. Tuck the baby’s legs between your arm and body. If you’re nursing twins, you may be able to use this hold to nurse both babies at once.

The “cross-cradle hold.” Put a pillow in your lap, and lay your baby across your lap at breast height. Support the baby’s head and neck with the hand and arm opposite the breast you’re using. Hold the baby’s head just below the ears, at the nape of the neck. Use your other hand to support your breast.