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Nursing a Preemie: What to Do When Your Boobs are Bigger than Your Baby

img_1332When Elizabeth Abraham began nursing her daughter, her breasts dwarfed the baby. Born at 32 weeks gestation, her little girl had a lot of growing to do before she was big enough to nurse.

Nursing a healthy baby is hard enough. As Elizabeth puts it, “Nursing my son was easy. I could just pick him up and cuddle him. There’s nothing cuddly about a Medela breast pump.”

When a newborn is too small even to take food by mouth, here’s some expert advice from moms and lactation consultants on how (and why) to breastfeed.

  1. Plan to breastfeed. Before your baby is born, discuss breastfeeding with your partner and your midwife or doctor. Read up on breastfeeding, and talk with experienced moms among your friends and family.
  2. Not all hospitals are created equal. If you have a choice about where your baby will be cared for, look for the “Baby Friendly Designation“. This World Health Organization initiative trains and certifies hospitals to support breastfeeding.
  3. Have an advocate. Being in a NICU with your newborn can be overwhelming. Try to have an ally, like a friend or family member who isn’t as physically and emotionally drained as you are, who can help you communicate with hospital staff.
  4. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Sarah Whedon, a trained doula and a nursing mom whose daughter spent her early days at Children’s Hospital in Boston, says talking to her babies medical caregivers was the key to nursing her baby in the NICU. “Parents can see things going on with their babies that the hospital staff doesn’t necessarily see,” she said.
  5. When you begin pumping, pump milk as often as you would feed your newborn, says Medela lactation consultant Irene Zoppi. That should be about 8 times a day. You’ll probably wind up with too much milk this way, but that’s the kind of problem you want to have.

Why go to so much trouble when you’re overwhelmed dealing with all the other stresses having a premature infant brings into your life?

“The science is very solid,” says Zoppi. “Human milk is more than just food. It offers infants protection. We refer to it as medicine for babies. It helps protect babies from complications of their prematurity.”

It was that immunity protection that kept Abraham going during the 32 days her daughter was in the NICU at Brigham and Women’s hospital.

“The single biggest problem for premature infants of Vivian’s type is infection,” she said, noting that with a preschooler at home their household is especially exposed to common colds and flus. “There are lines of defense and breastfeeding is the big one we have to fall back on. ”

For Prematurity Awareness Month, Medela is inviting people to vote for their favorite NICU. The winning hospitals will receive $5,000 in breastfeeding support supplies from Medela.

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