Your baby was born long before the shower invitations were mailed or the nursery furniture arrived. Looking so tiny and helpless in her isolette, she may seem to belong more to the NICU nurses and doctors than to you. Sitting in the special care nursery, not being allowed to hold your baby can be a lonely experience. But always remember that your presence does make a difference to your baby.
Each year in the United States, 420,000 premature babies are born. Advances in neonatology give these babies a great chance for a normal life. And today, more and more parents are discovering that there is something very important that they can provide for their premature baby: breast milk.
The milk of mothers who deliver preterm is different from the milk of term mothers. Scientists have identified vital immune benefits and special nutritional advantages in preterm milk. Higher in protein, breast milk provides for better absorption of fat, is easier to digest, produces less stress on the baby's organs, and promotes brain development. Perhaps most importantly, the higher concentrations of antimicrobial agents protect against infection—especially against necrotizing enterocolitis, the devastating bowel disease. Because of these special protections, many NICUs have developed policies encouraging and supporting mothers to provide breast milk for their babies.
At first, many premature babies are too small and weak to be put to the breast. During this time, nurses can teach mothers how to use breast pumps that express milk into sterile containers. Each NICU has guidelines for how to handle, store, and transport pumped milk. In the nursery, small amounts of the milk will be fed to the baby through tubes placed in the nose or mouth.
As the babies grow and gain strength, mothers and fathers are encouraged to hold their infant skin-to-skin. This is called "kangaroo care." If your baby weighs more than 1500 grams and is at least 28 weeks gestational age, kangaroo care is very beneficial for bonding and helps to stimulate the milk supply. It sooths and reassures the baby, who will often sleep more deeply and startle less often when tucked under Mom's or Dad's shirt.
Often, mothers will notice that the baby will begin to seek the nipple during these kangaroo sessions. Babies may begin sucking whenever they are ready. The nursery staff will help with positioning and latch-on suggestions, and will monitor to make sure the baby doesn't tire. Each day the baby will grow a little stronger, and the breastfeeding will become more effective. In the meantime, the baby will continue to receive supplemental breast milk feeds by tube, cup, or bottle.