Waiting for a baby to arrive is a time full of excitement and anticipation. And sometimes those bundles of joy decide to come too early. It can be a scary time, but there is good news. Over the last few decades, there have been major advancements that has made feeding preemies in the NICU easier and more effective than ever. And these tiny babies need all the nutrition they can get, as they are finishing their growth and development outside in the real world versus inside mom's womb.
When parents unexpectedly find themselves with a preemie, it's perfectly natural to have a lot of questions about premature baby development while your newborn is in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). And since your baby is so small, it's crucial that she receive the nutrition she needs to help her grow, develop, meet her milestones and go home.
Tiny Babies, Big Needs
While the average baby is born weighing about 8 pounds, premature babies can be teeny tiny. Preemies can weigh anywhere from 5 pounds … to just one pound. And when you are that tiny there are special considerations.
"To match intrauterine growth, premature baby development is more rapid than full-term babies, yet they have immature organs that are still developing," explains Bridget Barrett-Reis, PhD, pediatric nutrition researcher with Abbott.
And those immature organs can present some unique challenges, says Melody Thompson, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and pediatric nutrition specialist at Abbott. "The earlier a baby is born, the greater their nutrition needs are and the more challenges they have with feeding these preemies in the NICU." Thompson explains that preemies can have a hard time sucking, swallowing, and breathing and coordinating all three at the same time. They are learning these skills while still growing and developing the muscles and coordination required.
To address those challenges, babies who are not yet able to breastfeed or suck from a bottle may need to be fed through a special tube that's inserted through their noses or mouths and into their stomachs. The good news is that with time to grow, practice and today's nutritional advancements, most babies make their way home and start happy, healthy lives.
Size Matters: One Feeding = One Teaspoon
While your new baby is in hospital, the goal is to increase their body weight, maximize their brain and lung development and give them the vital nutrients they need so they can get strong. But what they are able to consume is much smaller than you may realize.
Typically, full-term babies start with one to two ounces of breast milk or formula—about the size of a medicine cup—8 to 12 times a day, However, premature infants may start with five milliliters, about every three hours. That's as small as a kitchen teaspoon. Teeny, tiny feedings is the way of life those first precious days and weeks for the tiniest babies.
The challenge with feeding preemies in the NICU, is to make sure they get nutrient-dense feedings with the perfect balance of nutrients that also won't overwhelm their bodies. "When they're born early, you have to be able to deliver these to the infant at a rate that meets their needs," Barrett-Reis says.
Related Fact Sheet: How human milk fortifiers help nourish premature babies (PDF)
But don't worry, the physicians, nurses, and dietitian will make sure your baby gets the right amount of fluids, calories and protein for her weight. Just as important is that she gets all of her vitamins and minerals including critical things like calcium, iron, phosphorus, zinc and Vitamin D to grow strong bones and support the development of the lungs, brain and other organs.
There is much to learn and adjust to in those first days and weeks. Don't hesitate to ask lots of questions and work closely with your healthcare team along the way. And as you get ready to take your bundle of joy home use trackers below to record every milestone and more.
Check out these informative trackers and downloads:
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