Breastfeeding Benefits for Preemies

Mother breastfeeding newborn in hospital

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Breastfeeding benefits for preemies are numerous, ranging from a lower incidence of ear infections in breastfed infants to a little help with weight loss for mommies. Not only does breastfeeding a premature baby offer all of the same benefits of breastfeeding that a term baby receives, but a premature baby also receives several preemie-specific benefits of breast milk.

Nutritional Benefits of Breastfeeding a Preemie

Premature babies have immature digestive systems, and breastmilk is the perfect food for their tiny bellies.

Studies show that premature babies digest breast milk better than they digest formula.

Nutrients in breastmilk include:

  • Proteins: Proteins can be hard for tiny tummies to digest. When children have milk allergies, it is the milk proteins that they are allergic to. One benefit of breastfeeding a premature baby is that the proteins in breast milk are much easier to digest. Breast milk contains more easy-to-digest whey than formula does, and the body digests whey more easily, and thus breast milk more quickly.
  • Fats: Because premature babies usually weigh very little at birth, good growth is important for their development. Breast milk contains lipase, which helps premature babies digest the fats in breast milk more completely. Better fat absorption is an important benefit of breastfeeding a premature baby.
  • Carbohydrates: Breast milk contains both lactose (a sugar) and oligosaccharides (a type of carbohydrate). Premature babies absorb up to 90% of the lactose in breast milk, which helps them absorb minerals easily. The oligosaccharides inhibit the attachment of harmful bacteria to the intestinal mucosa, which is thought to contribute to the decreased risk of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) seen in breastfed preemies.

Immunological Benefits

Most preemies are at risk for infections that can sometimes be very serious, so immune system benefits are some of the most important benefits of breastfeeding a premature baby.

  • Reduced Infection: The carbohydrates in breast milk help to prevent bacteria from "sticking" to a baby's mucous membranes. This benefit of breastfeeding a premature baby helps preemies to get sick less often.
  • Protects Against Specific Illnesses: Not only does breastfeeding protect premature babies from general illness, but research shows that breast milk reduces a premature baby's risk of several specific conditions. Breastfed preemies have a lower risk of NEC, a serious complication of prematurity. Breastfeeding also lowers a preemie's risk of sepsis, meningitis, and respiratory infections such as pneumonia and bronchiolitis.
  • Further Benefits: As they grow, the benefits of breastfeeding premature babies expand. Although the relationship between Mom's immune system and the baby's immune system is not clearly understood, mothers pass on current antibodies to their breastfed babies. If mom and baby are exposed to a cold, Mom's immune system will begin to send cold-fighting antibodies to the baby through the breast milk. Since premature babies can get very sick from RSV and other common illnesses, this is an important benefit.

Cognitive Benefits That Come With Breastfeeding

In addition to the nutritional and immunological benefits of breast milk, breastfeeding may help preemies get ahead intellectually.

Because preemies are at risk for developmental delays and poor school functioning, the cognitive benefits of breast milk are extra important for premature babies.

Benefits may include:

  • Early Cognitive Benefits: Infants who receive breast milk early in life are more likely to have better cognitive functioning as toddlers. One study, in particular, showed that low birth weight infants who received breast milk (even when combined with formula) scored higher on tests that measure cognitive development at age 30 months.
  • Lasting Cognitive Benefits: The intellectual benefits of breast milk do not stop when a baby is weaned. Even at age 7 1/2 to 8, children who received breast milk as premature infants still have higher IQ scores than children born early who did not receive breast milk.

Benefits for Mom

Premature babies are not the only ones who benefit from breastfeeding. Moms also benefit from breastfeeding their premature babies.

  • Feeling of Accomplishment: In the NICU, it's easy for parents to feel powerless. Babies may be too sick to snuggle, and NICU equipment often intimidates parents. Moms who provide breast milk for their preemies are doing something important, something nobody else can do for their little ones.
  • Health Benefits: Whether a baby is born early or on time, breastfeeding provides moms with many health benefits. The extra calories that breastfeeding burns can help moms return to their pre-pregnancy weight sooner, and the hormones that breastfeeding produces help the uterus return to its previous size more quickly. Breastfeeding may also reduce a mom's risk of breast and ovarian cancers, as well as type 2 diabetes.

Of course, breastfeeding is a very personal decision. These facts are to provide you with information that may help guide your decision. In the end, you must do what you feel is right for you and your child.

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  • La Leche League International. "FAQ: Is Breastfeeding Important for my Premature Baby?" Accessed from [link url-]

  • March of Dimes. "Quick Reference Fact Sheets: Breastfeeding" Accessed from

  • Callen, Jennifer RNC, MSc and Pinelli, Janet RNC, MScN, DNS. "A Review of the Literature Examining the Benefits and Challenges, Incidence, and Duration, and Barriers to Breastfeeding in Preterm Infants." Advances in Neonatal Care April 2005; 5, 72-88.