By Brittany Elise Anderson RN-NICU, CLC
As a NICU nurse, newborn photographer, lactation consultant, and mother of two I have always been an advocate for mother and baby connections. The act of producing and providing breastmilk to our new little babies is one of our most precious roles as moms. It is often our first “challenge” as new mothers (and yes, it is a huge challenge) and many of us enter into it with fears, anxiety, questions, and doubts. It is my hope, that after reading this post, you will feel educated, but also empowered, as we are uniquely built for this task and opportunity in our babies’ lives.
Breastmilk is quite possibly the most powerful medicine a baby can receive while in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). It is one of the most calorically dense liquids produced in the human body. In the first few days following birth, the milk produced by mom is extremely thick and rich. Not only is breastmilk a rich nutritional staple, but also the first line of defense for a new little one. More important than nutrition, are breastmilk’s germ-fighting antibodies, helping to build babies’ immune systems. This is the main reason why it is so important for moms to try and produce milk early post-partum and why those first few drops are called “liquid gold” by NICU staff.
At birth, a premature baby’s immune system is undeveloped and extremely vulnerable. They haven’t had the exposure to bacteria, viruses, and fungi necessary for developing their own immunity, but a mom’s exposure to these “bugs” over her lifetime has left her body packed full of immensely powerful immune cells. To use a simple analogy, it is almost like a mom giving her child a cheatsheet of every test she ever took in school so they have a head start in life. Breastmilk can serve as a baby’s first round of immunizations and gives them a substantial head start in the immunity department. But the more amazing part of this whole process is the uniquely created antibodies that are custom built exclusively for her baby. When a mother touches and exposes her body to the same germs and bacteria that her baby is being exposed to, she begins to produce “custom-made” milk just for her baby!
Not only is the immune system underdeveloped in premature babies, but the respiratory, gastric and intestinal systems (GI) are too. When a baby has immature lungs they will frequently drop their blood oxygen levels. When this happens the body shunts blood to the most important organs including the brain. Even just a few drops of a mothers breastmilk can help to coat and protect the lining of the GI system and reduce the occurrence of these problems.
In extreme prematurity (less than 28 weeks) a baby may not be able to even digest food. Doctors will begin to introduce milk by swabbing the babies mouth with the mother’s breast milk. This allows for the body to begin receiving those amazing germ-fighting antibodies and also “prime” the GI tract for digestion. Breastmilk helps with GI motility and digestion and data shows that very premature babies have better outcomes when breastmilk is introduced early on, specifically outcomes related to nutrition and GI function.
I know this is a ton of science but hopefully, this helps you to better understand just how amazing breastmilk is and why it is so important for a premature baby or ANY baby for that matter.