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No one plans on having a premature infant (defined as any baby born before 37 weeks out of 40 weeks gestation). Things often happen beyond our control, however, and sometimes a baby is born before he or she is ready. Many women feel that they can't breastfeed a baby if the baby is premature and has problems. It is harder to get started, yes, but it can be done.

Often, it will be a while before a premature baby can actually nurse on the breast. Babies have to be able to breathe room air oxygen before they can "latch on" to the breast. However, they can receive breast milk through a feeding tube. Breast milk is the essential first food, containing nutrients, and doctors have found that the breast milk of mothers of premature babies often is even higher in fat, calories, and these essential nurtrients. Any breast milk that a premature baby receives is bound to help boost immunities and help the baby regain health and strength.

If you know you want to breastfeed and your baby comes earlier than expected, a good breast pump is essential. Hospitals usually provide them if you need one while you are a patient. These pumps are wonderful and virtually painless. While in the hospital, pumping every 2-3 hours is a good way to get the milk flow started. Once you are released from the hospital, if your child is still a patient, you need a good pump for your home. You have several options, here. You can rent a pump from a medical supply store (this is a good option if you are only going to use the pump for a week or two). This costs at least $30 a week. Prices vary depending on pump and area. If you want your own pump, there are several good ones on the market. There are two types of breast pumps: manual and electric (these are usually battery operated, as well). Manual pumps are usually harder for most women to use. They require you to pull or press a lever to pump the milk. The AdventIsis is a wonderful manual pump. It also has the speed of an electric. It costs around $40-$50. Special "petals" on the pump stimulate the breast, releasing the milk into a bottle attached to the pump. Electric pumps are a little more expensive, but usually work faster. A good brand of electric is the Medela Electric Breast Pump. This ranges from just under $100 to over $200. These pumps come highly recommended from their users. They come very close to the quality of the breast pumps found in the hospitals. Mothers who go to work and pump their milk for their babies while there swear by this brand of pump.

Once you decide on a pump, it's important to read the instructions and learn how to use it. Breastfeeding is very much a learned skill, both for the mother and the baby. The clear plastic cup goes over the breast, with the nipple in the center of the shield. Then, following the instructions, you either begin pumping manually or turn the pump on. For premature babies, the milk should be pumped every 2 hours or so, with every 3 hours usually recommended at the maximum amount of time between pumping.

Pumping your milk may not be enough to get your milk started. If this is so, a lactation consultant is a wonderful person to ask for help. Most insurances cover the cost of a lactation consultant. They can help you with learning how to pump, how to get the baby to latch on properly when the baby is ready for this, how to make sure your milk supply is bountiful, etc.. The La Leche League is a good place to find consultants. Also, your local hospital can often suggest one for you.

If you need a little help producing more milk, there are herbs out there that can safely help. Of course, as always, before starting taking any herb or medication, consult your doctor. Fenugreek is one herb that increases milk supply. Blessed Thistle is another. They can be found at health food stores and other stores that carry herbal supplements. These herbs have been known to increase milk supply by up to 50% or even more.

Once your baby is ready to actually nurse from the breast, the learning process begins all over again, for both of you. Premature babies are often small, and they can have a hard time at first. A nursing pillow is a wonderful thing to have. It fits on your lap, with the baby resting on it. Holding the baby close, the baby needs to open its mouth wide, so that it takes in the entire areola of the nipple and as much of the surrounding tissue as possible. You will be able to hear the baby as he or she takes in the milk and swallows it. Proper latching on ensures that you don't experience severe nipple pain. Breastfeeding can be uncomfortable, at first, but it should never actively hurt.

To ensure that your baby is getting enough to eat, check for these signs: is your baby wetting at least 4-8 times a day, is the baby growing fast enough, and is the baby happy and content between feedings? A dehydrated baby will have loose skin, sunken skin and eyes, and will not wet many diapers. If your baby is getting enough breast milk, you will be able to tell.

Breastmilk is best for your baby. Especially for your premature baby. It is possible to successfully breastfeed a premature baby. It may take a little more time and effort, but the end results, a happy and healthy baby, are worth it.