Father, mother and newborn baby 

Your baby’s ability to breastfeed will depend on how early your baby was born and her health. Your hospital may also have policies that affect when you start breastfeeding. Even before then, try to hold your baby skin to skin as much as you can. This helps your baby stay warm, calm, and sleep better. And it may help you make more milk.

Your baby has feeding skills even before you start breastfeeding. Research done in Sweden, where 98% of mothers breastfeed, found that:

  • At 28 weeks, babies can root at the breast and latch-on,
  • At 31 weeks some babies can suck and get milk.
  • By 36 weeks, most preterm babies can fully breastfeed.
  • Babies with health problems tend to take longer to breastfeed well.

When ready to take food by mouth, babies can go to the breast first. Studies have found that preterm babies may have fewer heartbeat and breathing problems when fed by breast than by bottle. A baby who is not taking full feedings at the breast can be fed milk in other ways until she is breastfeeding well.

When it is time to start breastfeeding, begin when your baby shows feeding cues. Look for signs like: 

  • Sucking around the gavage tube.
  • Putting her hand to her mouth.
  • Nuzzling and turning her head toward you with a wide open mouth.

Think of your first breastfeedings as practice.

  • Your baby may lick or mouth the nipple at first.
  • Many preterm babies suck in short bursts and fall asleep quickly.
  • It may take several feedings before your baby breastfeeds well.
  • If your baby does not get much milk at first, it’s okay, because she will be given more milk after breastfeeding.

To make the move to full breastfeeding, seek help from a board-certified lactation consultant (IBCLC). To find one near you, check www.ilca.org.

This is general information and does not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. If you have a problem you cannot solve quickly, seek help right away. Every baby is different. If in doubt, contact your physician or other healthcare provider.

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