Banner Health Services  

Should preemies be given human milk?

Andrea Hensley  

Andrea Hensley is a lactation consultant on staff at Banner Thunderbird Medical Center in Glendale, Ariz. Her office can be reached at (602) 865-5920.

Question: Should babies who are born prematurely be given human milk or formula?  

Answer: Based on nutritional and health benefits, human milk is the recommended source of nutrition for infants, especially those born prematurely.

During the last trimester of pregnancy mothers provide their babies with a variety of nutrients and antibodies that help a baby’s body and immune system develop. If a baby is born prematurely, they may not receive all of these nutrients and antibodies while in the uterus, resulting in greater risk of infection or illness. 

Fortunately, a mother’s body responds after a premature birth by producing milk that has the protein and nutrients, as well as antibodies, necessary to satisfy the baby’s needs. What’s remarkable is a mother naturally produces specific antibodies against potential infections that both she and her infant have been exposed to within 24 hours. These protective antibodies are passed to the infant through her milk.

Several studies indicate that premature babies who are fed human milk, instead of formula, have lower risks of health complications, such as intestinal infections, blood infections and respiratory complications, to name a few. Research also indicates that for extremely low birth weight infants, human milk optimizes mental, behavioral and psychomotor developmental early on, more so than formula.

Still, providing human milk requires mothers to routinely pump to provide milk for infants in the NICU. This can be a daunting task when, for instance, a mother must pump eight or more times a day, every day until the baby stabilizes and transitions to the breast.

Even if building and maintaining a sufficient milk supply is an issue, every little bit of human milk is beneficial. What new mothers should understand is that success in breastfeeding is not solely based on a breast milk-only diet; instead, success comes from a mother doing the best job she can to provide for her baby.

Reviewed August 2010

Page Last Modified: 08/03/2010
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