Breast feeding is the best form of nutrition a mother can offer her child. Whether your child is born full term or very premature, breast milk offers the best source of infant nutrition. The premature infant really needs many of the protective qualities breast milk has to offer. In fact, at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, breast milk is viewed as a medical intervention. According to Dr. Diane Spatz at CHOP, “Breast milk protects the baby's eyes and brain. We know that human milk leads to better developmental outcomes and better scores on intelligence tests”.
Many NICUs across the nation have introduced donor breast milk to infants, whose mothers cannot provide breast milk. There are many circumstances, in which, a mother may not be able to offer breast milk such as inadequate supply, medications that cross over into the breast milk contraindicated for infants, HIV infection and personal choice. It is difficult to produce breast milk if a woman has a very premature infant because her hormone levels may so low that milk production becomes inadequate to nutritionally sustain the infant. Maternal stress can also hinder breast milk production and having a child in an NICU is very stressful.
The difficulty that preemies have with manufactured formulas is due to their digestive tract being premature. These infants are supposed to still be in utero not using their GI system. The results of formula usage can be spitting, lack of proper digestion and weight loss. Breast milk is much easier on the digestive tract. Breast milk is so beneficial that researchers are not trying to improve breast milk; rather, researchers are trying to replicate it in laboratories.
Using breast milk and breast feeding are not necessarily mutually inclusive events in the NICU. Infants less than 35 weeks of gestational age do not have a fully functioning suck reflex. Pacifier sucking does not involve the muscle action needed to swallow formula. Therefore, premature infants begin feeding with the use of a nasogastric tube. This NG tube is placed into the nose and is advanced down to the stomach so the milk can be introduced. This type of alternative feeding will gradually decrease since the infant will start to effectively suck as the baby starts approaching 35 weeks of gestation.
Some infants are so small that if the baby is not on oral feedings, oral care is performed. Oral care is when the inside of the baby's mouth is coated with mom's own milk. Oral care is important for 3 reasons:
- The baby can absorb small proteins through the cheeks, which is important for the baby's immune system;
- Human milk is antimicrobial, so by keeping the mouth coated, the baby is protected from infectious processes; and
- Human milk is sweet, and babies like sweet. So oral care helps to prepare the infant for feeding at the breast.
The importance of breast feeding and the increase use of breast milk is an important health goal advocated by the World Health Organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC.
Breast feeding also helps mothers. According to the American Diabetes Association, here are some benefits that breast feeding offers:
- Women who breast feed have less dense breast tissue. Studies have shown that women, who breast fed, have a reduced risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers.
- Women can burn about 500 calories per day by breast feeding an infant.
- Less postpartum bleeding occurs due to the faster shrinking of the uterus and a faster return to the menstrual cycle.
- Better bone density is noted.
- Mothers have a reduced risk of postpartum depression.
- It is cost effective. Breast milk is free. This economy might lend itself to an increase in breast feeding.
- It is convenient because you don’t have to prepare bottles or formula. You can feed your child without preparations of any sort.
The push for nursing and medical personnel to foster breast feeding is on the rise and supported by state, federal and private sponsors. When in the hospital, women should take advantage of the lactation consultants, whose only job is to facilitate the breast feeding process. Parents of preemies often feel helpless in caring for their small babies. Offering breast milk (either at breast or by pumping) is one of the greatest gifts that only a mother can supply. Stay well.