Ill or premature babies | breastfedbabies

Ill or very tiny babies may not be able to breastfeed at first, but breastmilk is exactly what they need. In fact, it’s so important that some hospitals have even set up human milk banks to provide breastmilk for babies in the special care baby unit (SCBU) if their mothers are unable to provide their own breastmilk for their baby.

Babies born early are particularly vulnerable to some dangerous conditions such as neonatal necrotising enterocolitis, a very serious bowel disorder, and breastmilk helps protects against this. These babies especially benefit from the antibodies, hormones, enzymes and growth factors contained in breastmilk. Breastmilk is also easy to digest and breastfeeding will help you feel closer to your baby while he or she is in the SCBU.


Mother holding babyIf your baby is not ready to feed directly from the breast, it is important that you begin to express milk as soon as possible after the birth. This will help your milk production and ensure it is established for when your baby is ready to breastfeed. In the meantime, expressed breastmilk can be given to your baby through a tube, or in a syringe or cup. You can find instructions on how to express and store breastmilk here. Hand expressing is usually better in the first few days, because it makes collecting small amounts of precious colostrum easier. 

Express as often as you can, 8-10 times in 24 hours is ideal, including at least once in the night. The idea is to try to match a newborn baby’s feeding pattern, you don’t need to worry about expressing exactly every three hours, just try to express frequently and at least 8-10 times in 24 hours. At first, you’ll only be able to express small amounts, but don’t worry, that’s all your baby needs in the first few days. After two to five days the amount will increase and the SCBU staff can advise you on how to keep going so that you can express as much milk as possible.

Establishing breastfeeding

Premature babyEven the very tiniest babies benefit from skin-to-skin contact and being held close to your breast. Being close to you helps your baby to practise rooting for the breast and to get positioning and attachment right. The SCBU staff will encourage you to do this and to try breastfeeding when your baby seems ready. It may take several attempts, so be patient. At first, some babies may only open their mouths to latch on but not suck. Expressing a few drops of milk by hand onto your baby’s lips can help encourage him or her to latch on. Keep trying once or twice every day and eventually your baby will learn.

Even if you are planning to breastfeed when home, sometimes your baby may need to be bottle-fed while in the Neonatal Unit. Some units will use cup feeding instead and this can be a good alternative at this time. The neonatal staff will help you with this. For more information download our leaflet Breastfeeding your ill or premature baby.

Milk bank

Mother and babyBreastmilk is so important for ill or premature babies, that many hospitals have begun using milk banks to supply human breastmilk to these vulnerable babies if their mothers’ own milk is not available. This may be due to poor supply or because the mother needs drug therapy which would be bad for the baby if it passed into the breastmilk.

The Western Trust Milk Bank, based in Irvinestown, is helping hundreds of neonatal babies and babies with medical and surgical problems in hospitals all over Ireland every year. The milk bank issues approx 1,000 litres of breast milk every year helping in the region of 700 babies, including twins, triplets and occasionally quadruplets. The milk bank has up to 220 donor mothers. Donors are mothers who are breastfeeding their own babies of 6 months and under but have excess milk and are prepared to help other babies, by donating some of their breast milk. This gesture can help tiny, premature, sick babies survive and leave hospital more quickly.

Mothers who want to find out more about becoming a donor can contact Ann McCrea, Human Milk Bank Coordinator, WHSCT Human Milk Bank on 028 6862 8333 or at