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Expressing breast milk for your premature or ill baby

You may not be able to feed your baby at your breast if your baby is:

  • very premature
  • unwell
  • separated from you

But you can express your milk for your baby. Expressing breast milk from the start helps to maintain your milk supply.

Express your milk as soon as possible after the birth. Try to do this within the first hour if possible. Your midwife will guide you depending on your baby’s needs and how you are doing.

You may be unwell after the birth and need specialist care. But your midwife will help you when you feel well enough.

Starting to express your breast milk

When you first express milk, you will do it by hand. It's normal to express just drops of colostrum in the early days.

The nurse caring for your baby will give them the colostrum you express. If your baby has not started feeding by mouth, the nurse can use your colostrum for oral care. This is when the colostrum is absorbed through your baby's mouth. This can help improve your baby's immunity and fight infection.

It may take a few times before you produce milk. Your baby’s tummy is tiny and every drop of colostrum or breast milk matters.

Read more about hand expressing breast milk

You can start using a breast pump when your milk changes from yellow colostrum to white-coloured milk. The hospital staff will guide you on when to start using a breast pump.

Read more about starting to use a breast pump

Storing and transporting your breast milk.

Midwife Rebecca O'Donovan shows Mums how to hand express milk

Breast milk benefits

If your baby is born premature, the breast milk you produce is especially suited to your baby's needs. The milk is different to breast milk produced for a full-term baby.

Premature breast milk is higher in protein and minerals. It contains different types of fat that your baby can more easily digest and absorb. The fat in breast milk helps the development of your baby’s brain. This is especially important for a premature baby.

Breast milk is easier for your baby to digest than formula. It also means that you can avoid exposing your baby's immature gut lining to the cow’s milk proteins found in formula. Exposure to these proteins can lead to a higher chance of developing allergies.

Premature babies who are breastfed are less likely to develop infections of the digestive tract than babies who are formula fed. The milk you produce in the first few days contains high levels of antibodies to help your baby fight infection.

Getting help

Expressing breast milk may feel difficult when you are tired and worried about your baby. Remember to look after yourself and try to get rest. Give yourself time, expressing is a skill that gets easier with practice and support.

Talk to your baby's nurse or your midwife. They can help you find a routine to have as many expressing sessions as possible. The hospital's lactation specialist will help if you have challenges breastfeeding.

Find a breastfeeding support group

Page last reviewed: 10 November 2020
Next review due: 14 November 2024

This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 123.