Feeding your premature baby

Mom holding baby

Your baby’s nutritional needs

Since your newborn has missed out on some nourishment during pregnancy, they may need more energy and vitamins than full-term babies to help them ‘catch up’. Breastfeeding is usually encouraged as their first ‘food’; however, your baby may be unable to breastfeed or bottlefeed at first, as a premature baby often has problems sucking and swallowing. But unless they are being drip-fed, expressed breastmilk can still be used for feeding premature babies via a tube.

In some cases, your baby may need more nutrients than even your breastmilk can provide, so the hospital may add a milk fortifier to your expressed breastmilk. A milk fortifier gives your baby extra goodness but is only available in hospital. Once your baby is ready to go home, they will be feeding more normally and will probably no longer need a milk fortifier.

When should you feed your premature baby?

When it comes to feeding premature babies, things have to be very carefully monitored to make sure they get the goodness they need. You’ll be given plenty of advice as to when to feed your premature baby before you take them home. Although they may have greater nutritional needs than full-term babies, your baby’s digestive system will not be able to manage a lot at once, so they will probably have to be fed little and often.

You’ll know if your baby is getting enough milk, as they’ll be happy and content after a feed, and also have regular bowel movements and between 6–8 wet nappies in 24 hours.

Mom holding baby hand

Breastfeeding your premature baby at home

If you were able to start breastfeeding in hospital, try to keep it up when you get home. If you were only expressing in hospital, it’s not too late to give breastfeeding a go. Your health visitor will be able to give you plenty of advice on how to breastfeed correctly. It may take a little while for your baby to get used to it so give it a few goes – it’s well worth the effort. In the meantime, you should continue to express until your baby is happy with feeding at your breast.

If you are formula feeding

Your premature baby may need a special preterm formula which gives them the extra nutrients they need. When you leave hospital, you may be recommended or prescribed a similar formula, specially made for preterm babies who have just left hospital. When your baby is ready, your healthcare professional will advise you to move them onto a standard formula milk.

Common feeding problems

Feeding premature babies can come with specific problems. They often have a habit of sucking for longer than they should, before swallowing and breathing; this can tire them out before they’re actually full. So look out for signs that show they’re ready for a break: a slower rate of sucking, blinking, drooling, and raised eyebrows. Then gently remove them from your breast, or take away the bottle, to give them a breather.

Premature babies also seem to suffer more from colic and wind than full-term babies. Here are some tips to help you minimise the symptoms:

  • Try to make sure your baby is not swallowing too much air – using a medium-flow teat may help.
  • If your baby is old enough, sit them upright during feeds.
  • Baby massage is also thought to be very effective at easing the discomfort of colic and wind.

When to start weaning your premature baby

All babies can take time getting used to solid food but weaning can often take longer with those born prematurely. Government guidelines recommend weaning does not start until a baby is at least 6 months. But for a premature baby, weaning is recommended between 5 and 7 months of age (from birth). When you start weaning is largely up to your baby. Just look out for signs that show they are ready to wean. It can be tricky to tell, so if you’re unsure, check with your health visitor.

If you’d like any tips on introducing your baby to solids or have any questions about your premature baby, why not give our expert team a call? We can even send you a free guide to weaning.


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Join the C&G baby club today

  • Weekly emails with tips and advice for your stage
  • 1-to-1 support from our dedicated Careline team, 8.30am - 5.30pm Monday to Friday.

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