Nutritional needs of preterm infants
There are different types of food for a preterm baby in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU):
- Mother’s milk
- Donor milk from a human milk bank
- Combination of mother’s/donor milk and formula
Several studies have shown that mother’s milk is the best form of nutrition for term and preterm born infants. If mothers cannot provide enough breast milk, it can be supplemented with donor milk from an established human milk bank that follows specific safety regulations or a preterm infant formula.
Even though early preterm milk has a higher protein content, it is still not sufficient for the high needs of many of these infants and normally needs to be fortified with additional nutrients, in particular protein, calcium and phosphorus, to meet the baby’s increased needs. It is well tolerated and digested in preterm babies and results in faster weight gain.
Breast milk for preterm babies
As preterm babies were not able to get the necessary time to develop and grow in the womb of their mothers, they may need nutritional supplements in addition to breast milk for a limited time.Brain, lungs and kidneys are still developing and therefore need adequate nutrition. Extra protein will be added to sufficiently support the development of the brain and to achieve the best growth in length and weight. The growing bones also require minerals like calcium and phosphorus. These supplements are especially important for preterm infants because they missed the normal period of accumulation of these minerals in the third trimester of pregnancy.
These extra nutrients will be added to the milk before it is fed to the baby, e.g., through a feeding tube (small tube to provide nutrition to neonates, who are not able to suck and swallow on their own).
They can be added individually to the milk or can be provided by using commercially available liquid or powdered fortifiers which combine several extra nutrients to enrich breast milk.
Nutritional needs of the baby are assessed by healthcare professionals at the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and they decide together with parents what is best for the individual preterm infant.In some cases, it may not be possible to provide a sufficient amount of breast milk. In these cases, special formulas for preterm infants are available. These special formulas contain higher energy, proteins and minerals than formula for babies born at term in order to meet their growth requirements.