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Feeding options and supplements for your premature baby

Exclusive breastfeeding is the best option for premature babies.

This is when your baby gets all their feeds from the breast or expressed breast milk.

If this is not possible, you can also use:

Only offer breast milk or formula milk as your baby's milk drink until they are 12 months corrected age.

Your baby's corrected age is their actual age minus the number of weeks or months they were born early. For example, if your baby is 14 months old and they were born 2 months early, their corrected age is 12 months.

For breastfed babies, continue breastfeeding until 2 years of age or more. But any amount of time breastfeeding will still help your baby.

Read more about premature babies and development

Breast milk for premature babies

Breast milk is the best food for your baby. If your baby is born prematurely, the breast milk you produce is especially suited to your baby's needs.

If your baby cannot breastfeed yet, you can express breast milk and give it to them in a bottle. This will help maintain your milk supply.

Breast milk helps your baby by:

  • providing the nutrition they need
  • improving their brain development
  • strengthening their immune system
  • protecting them against infections

Even small amounts of breast milk benefit your baby. But try to provide breast milk for as long as possible. This will increase the health benefits for your baby.

No formula protects your baby from infections and diseases the way breast milk does. They do not contain the antibodies and immune-protecting substances found in breast milk.

Your nurse or midwife will help you to learn how to breastfeed in the hospital.

After you leave the hospital, you can get support from your PHN, breastfeeding support groups, and community lactation consultants.

Read more about expressing breast milk for your premature baby

Combination feeding for premature babies

If exclusive breastfeeding is not possible, you can try combination feeding. Combination feeding is when you combine breastfeeding and bottle feeding.

If you're considering combination feeding, talk to the staff looking after you and your baby before you leave the hospital.

After you go home, you can talk to your public health nurse (PHN) or GP. Your local breastfeeding support group can also offer help and advice.

Formula feeding for premature babies

If you are unable to breastfeed or choose not to breastfeed, you need to use formula milk.

Your nurse or midwife will help you to learn how to formula feed your baby before you leave the hospital.

If you use formula milk, reduce your baby's risk of infection by preparing their bottle feeds safely.

Specialised feed and nutritional supplements

Your baby may need extra nutrition to help them to catch up on growth. Your baby’s doctor or dietitian will tell you if your baby needs this.

They may recommend using a breast milk fortifier for breast milk feeds.

If you use formula, they may recommend an enriched formula. Staff at the hospital may call this a 'nutrient enriched post discharge formula'.

If your baby has a medical condition, they may need specialised nutritional products.

After you go home, your PHN or GP will continue to monitor your baby.

You'll be told when to stop using the nutritional supplements or specialised feeds at a check-up with your PHN, GP or hospital.

Vitamin D supplements

Babies need 5 micrograms of vitamin D3 as a supplement every day from birth to 12 months if they are:

  • breastfed
  • taking less than 300mls (10 fluid ounces) of infant formula a day

Premature babies may need more vitamin D than this. Your doctor at the hospital or GP will tell you if your baby needs more Vitamin D.

Babies who have other supplements or breast milk fortifiers that contain vitamin D may not need extra vitamin D.

Read more about Vitamin D for babies 0 to 12 months

Multivitamin supplements

Your doctor or GP may recommend a multivitamin supplement for your premature baby. This may be instead of a vitamin D supplement.

Iron supplements

Your doctor or GP may recommend iron supplements for your premature baby.

Your baby may need to take iron supplements until they can eat iron-rich solid foods.

If your baby has an iron-enriched breast milk fortifier or formula, they may not need iron supplements.

Page last reviewed: 8 November 2021
Next review due: 8 November 2024

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This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 8.