Breastfeeding Critical for Preterm Infants

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - November 24, 2008

Washington, DC—When a baby is born premature, helping the baby survive is usually the first priority for new parents. The benefits of breastfeeding, including protection from many diseases, are especially critical for premature infants. As the country recognizes Prematurity Awareness Month, many are aware that more than a half million babies—one in every eight—are born prematurely each year in the United States. There is virtually universal agreement among health care experts that breast milk is the ideal form of nutrition for all infants, including those who are born premature.

Research has shown that breastfeeding protects infants from illnesses such as ear infections, respiratory infections, and diarrhea, as well as chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and childhood leukemia. For preterm infants, studies have demonstrated that breast milk provides additional protection from life-threatening conditions that are more common in prematurity, including necrotizing enterocolitis, sepsis, and pneumonia.

Given all of these benefits, the United States Breastfeeding Committee joins the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the Health Resources and Services Administration, and the DHHS Office on Women’s Health in recommending that infants be exclusively breastfed for six months, and continue to breastfeed for the first year of life and as long afterwards as mutually desired by mother and infant. Although many premature infants cannot feed from the breast right away, mothers can express milk manually or with a breast pump so it can be fed to their babies through a tube, with a dropper, or from a bottle. By expressing milk regularly, a mother keeps up her milk supply until her baby is able to breastfeed directly. The early milk, or colostrum, provides a boost to the developing premature infant’s immune system.

USBC Chair Joan Younger Meek, MD, MS, RD, FAAP, FABM, IBCLC, calls upon hospitals and physicians to recommend human milk for premature infants, either through direct breastfeeding or by using the mother’s expressed milk. Dr. Meek says, “Breastfeeding education and support should be provided as early as possible to mothers of preterm infants, and mother-infant skin-to-skin contact and direct breastfeeding should be encouraged as early as feasible.”

When mothers are unable or unwilling to provide their own milk, donor human milk is the ideal replacement. The use of donor human milk saves infant lives and positively impacts health outcomes of countless premature and sick infants through prevention of disease. Human milk banks in North America adhere to national guidelines for quality control of screening and testing of donors and pasteurize all milk before distribution. Fresh human milk from unscreened donors is not recommended because of the risk of transmission of infectious agents.

For more information about the benefits of breastfeeding, visit The National Women’s Health Information Center. In addition, USBC has published an issue paper, Benefits of Breastfeeding, and a position statement on “Safe Use of Donor Human Milk.” Both are available for download on the USBC Web site.

Physicians and other health care providers can offer assistance and answer questions about breastfeeding. Knowledgeable breastfeeding support personnel to assist with breastfeeding the premature infant or expressing milk can be located through the International Lactation Consultant Association, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program, and La Leche League International. Parents and health care providers seeking donor human milk may contact the Human Milk Banking Association of North America for further information.

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