Breastfeeding babies born at 36 or 37 weeks

A baby born between 34+0 weeks and 36+6 weeks gestation is defined as a late preterm baby. A baby born between 37+0 weeks and 38+6 weeks is defined as an early term baby. The average length of a twin pregnancy is 36+4 weeks. Many twin babies are born between 36 and 38 weeks gestation due to the NICE guidelines.

For babies who are born at this time, establishing breastfeeding can be quite difficult. They are often well enough to remain on the postnatal ward with their mothers, which is great as they do not have to go to special care. But as such they often get treated the same as a full term baby and are left to “demand feed”.

The problem is that these babies often do not “demand” enough and prefer to sleep, although I prefer the term “cue-based feeding” or “baby-led feeding”. They are often too sleepy for the mother to be able to follow their lead completely. And if they do not feed enough, they get even sleepier and harder to rouse to feed. Also a lot of slightly early babies are not physically strong enough or coordinated enough to fully breastfeed, often until around due date or even a bit after. They have a few sucks, take on a little milk, and then fall asleep before they have had their fill.

This can lead to real problems! Babies can lose weight, or jaundice can set in. Mum’s milk supply may not be stimulated enough, or she may lose her hard-earned milk supply if she was pumping in NICU. After a week or two it is decided the babies need supplementing, but the lack of breast milk may mean they need to use formula.

These problems are also experienced by parents of more premature babies as they are often discharged around what would have been 36-37 weeks gestation with minimal breastfeeding support. They are often given the chance to “room in” for a couple of days to practise feeding and looking after their baby or babies full time, and this is often the first time the breastfeeding mother is allowed to follow her babies’ lead.

These families need lots of support. They need good quality face-to-face breastfeeding support after discharge. They need to be shown the subtle cues their baby makes to show that they need a feed; stirring, mouth opening, turning head from side to side, and the later cues including stretching, moving arms and legs, trying to bring hand to mouth. Crying and agitation are late cues. (Maria Biancuzzo, Dec2018) They should be encouraged to feed their babies frequently. Dr Tena Fry said in her interview with Maria Biancuzzo: “If a baby’s eyes are open they should be offered food”. Parents also ned to be supported to understand when their baby is not cueing frequently enough. We would suggest not to let a baby of this gestation go longer than 3 hours from the start of each feed to ensure they have a minimum of 8 feeds in 24 hours. 

Parents should also be shown how to ensure the babies are latching on well to feed. And tandem feeding positions can be discussed to help with the intensity of breastfeeding new baby twins. Also breast compressions are a very useful tool to help transfer a bit more milk to the babies during the feed, and to remind them to keep feeding when they get a bit sleepy towards the end of the feed. Sometimes a baby of this gestation may have trouble latching directly on to the breast. Babies who are a little early sometimes latch better and feed more efficiently when using nipple shields. Close attention should be paid to milk weight gain and nappy output if shields are used as they can inhibit milk transfer.


Parents may need support with continuing to pump for top ups if the babies are not ready to fully breastfeed. And they need to be shown how to tell that their baby is developmentally ready and feeding efficiently enough to move away from 3 hourly feeds and on to baby-led, cue-based feeding. The problem is each baby is different. Some will be ready to fully breastfeed at 36 weeks, others at 42 weeks, and everything in between. But mums often continue to supplement and schedule far longer than they need to. We would normally look for each baby to be putting on weight as expected, generally waking themselves for feeds before the 3 hour schedule, and having a good proportion of “active feeding” during a breastfeed. Then if mum is pumping for top ups this can be gradually phased out. They will be safe to move on to baby-led feeding. If parents are using formula to top up this can be gradually phased out. See our guide here 

Ideally each family would be guided by somebody highly qualified such as an IBCLC or experienced breastfeeding counsellor. This is a scenario that deserves specialist breastfeeding support in the home on discharge from hospital, to ensure they can maximise the breast milk intake of their babies.

 

Kathryn Stagg IBCLC 2019

https://mariebiancuzzo.com/2018/12/04/cue-based-feedings-for-late-preterm-infants/

https://www.unicef.org.uk/babyfriendly/

Dropping top ups gradually – a step by step guide for mum.

A lot of babies are discharged from hospital topping up with either formula or expressed milk. This can be for a number of reasons; babies were born early and were not efficient feeders, babies were premature and started life with tube feeds, babies have lost too much weight, babies had low blood sugar, baby may have had a tongue tie fixed, there was more than one baby! So how do we move on from this? Once a baby is efficient at feeding the breast, there are a number of stages we can go through to move towards exclusive breastfeeding. I cannot stress strongly enough to get some face to face breastfeeding support to make sure you have an optimal latch and that baby is feeding well.  Dropping top-ups should not be started until baby is gaining weight steadily, has plenty of wet and dirty nappies, and is generally settled between feeds. A breastfeeding specialist will help you determine this and talk about what to look for.  This journey can be started at any point depending on how much topping up is happening, or left at any point if happy with a  certain level of mixed feeding.

Nappy output, especially wet nappies, is a fundamental sign that baby is getting enough milk and staying hydrated, and is something mum can keep an eye on very easily. For a baby between 1 week and 4 or 5 weeks old we should see 3 to 4 dirty nappies a day and at least 6 wet nappies. For older babies they can go for days without a poo and be fine, as long as it’s soft and abundant when it does arrive, but there should still be lots of wet nappies. Baby should also be weighed between each stage to make sure they are still roughly following their curve on the growth chart.

Firstly we need to make sure baby is going to the breast every feed. If a feed is missed because of giving a bottle, mum’s milk production will go down. When milk is left in the breast it sends messages to the milk producing cells not to make any more. If the breast is emptied frequently the production goes up. The more you feed, the more you make. If baby will not go to the breast for some feeds then mum should express her milk instead. Also if baby is fussy at the breast an not feeding well, mum should be encouraged to express her milk to start boosting supply.

It is important to put baby to the breast during the night. It might be tempting to skip a feed and get some sleep but this can be detrimental to mum’s milk supply. Prolactin, the milk making hormone, is at its highest at night so we want to take advantage of this to put in an order of milk for the next day and help maintain a full milk supply. Learning to feed lying down can be life changing as long as safe bed sharing guidelines are adhered to. Your local breastfeeding specialist will be able to help you with different positions, making sure the latch is still good.

If baby is having a high volume top up after every feed (more than 30-40ml) but is now feeding efficiently and putting on weight steadily, the first step is to drop the volume of formula in each top up. Your baby will probably start doing this naturally themselves as feeding becomes more efficient, so follow their lead. Baby can be put back on to the breast to settle if necessary. This will increase the amount of stimulation for the breast and will help boost milk supply. It will also encourage baby to get used to settling on the breast. If the baby will not tolerate going back on the breast then mum can pump instead and replace some top ups with expressed. We want to start increasing mum’s milk supply towards the level that the baby is taking without risking weight gain issues. Mums should be encouraged to be baby led and allow the baby to feed frequently. If baby is still a little sleepy and not waking for feeds then mum should wake baby every 3 hours or more and feed at least 8 times in each 24 hours as a bare minimum. We measure the 3 hours from the start of each feed. It is good to clear the diary, get a feeding station set up with everything she needs; snacks, drinks, phone, remote control and some good box sets to watch, and do as much feeding and skin to skin as possible. I like to call this ‘Topless Telly Time’. Breast compressions, basically hand expressing whilst baby is latched on, can help increase the amount of milk the baby is getting whilst feeding and can also stimulate a sleepy baby to start sucking again.

Once the baby is on a small volume top up every feed (30ml or less) we can work to drop some of the top ups. It is important to get baby weighed before this next stage to ensure weight gain is steady and has not slowed due to the decreased top ups. If weight is suffering, adding some larger top ups will be necessary and get some further face to face breastfeeding support. It may be a case of waiting a bit longer to start decreasing. 

If the baby is growing well and has a good nappy output, a good halfway house is to aim to top up 3 times a day. Pick times of day when baby is more fussy and is less willing to go to the breast to keep your top ups. You will probably find that baby will start to do this themselves at certain times of day so again, follow their lead. But it is good to spread them fairly evenly over 24 hours. Take a section of the day and let the baby feed frequently or cluster feed during this time until they are settled enough. Feed when baby shows early feeding cues, do not wait for them to cry. Mum can put the baby back on the breast as many times as it takes. Skin to skin continues to be very beneficial at this stage. Over the next 3 or 4 days she should see some of the cluster feeding behaviour diminish or the frequency of feeds reduce a little as milk supply catches up to the needs of the baby. Remember the more often milk is removed from the breast, the more milk is produced. Breasts are factories, not store rooms. If demand is increased, production increases to match. Feeding frequently is completely normal for a breastfed baby, and they often have periods of fussy cluster feeding for the first few months, often in the evenings. Mum will learn what is normal for her baby if she follows his needs, and this will give her confidence that everything is going well. Continuing to get baby weighed during this time is important to ensure milk intake is sufficient. And keep in touch with local breastfeeding support. 

Another option is to pump after every feed and work to replace formula top ups with expressed milk. This technique will be necessary to increase milk supply if the baby is not so efficient at the breast, is not transferring the milk well, or is too sleepy to take a whole feed. Then as the baby becomes stronger and more able to feed baby will be able to take more milk directly and she will find that she does not need to top up as much and can reduce the pumping. Face to face breastfeeding support can help with this.

Once we have 3 top ups a day with baby led breastfeeding in between it is relatively straightforward to stop the last of the top ups. Mum can either stop them all at once or drop one at a time. It is often a relief to have the relative simplicity of just breastfeeding without all the faff of bottles, sterilizing, pumps and making up formula safely. Breast milk is always ready, day and night, it sends both baby and mum off to sleep easily, and it’s free!

For twins or triplets all of this still applies. It may be a good plan to get some support with tandem feeding. Tandem feeding obviously maximizes the time spent feeding as there’s less waiting time for babies. It syncronizes the babies’ feeding times and more importantly sleeping times! A strong feeder can help a weak feeder by stimulating the let down and getting the milk flowing. It increases milk supply and also the milk can have a higher fat content.

Mum may get to a stage where she is at maximum capacity for breastfeeding, whether there be physiological reasons for not being able to produce enough milk and baby just cannot maintain weight on solely breastfeeding, or maybe she decides she needs to keep some formula for other reasons. If this is the case she can mix feed and do one or two whole feeds of formula each day, and continue with baby led breastfeeding for the rest of the day and night. Or she could continue to top up some of the feeds. Any amount of breast milk is so important for baby and for mum. We must value every single drop. Once baby moves on to solid foods and begins to reduce their milk intake naturally, the formula can be dropped then and breastfeeding can continue for as long mum and baby enjoy it. 

Kathryn Stagg ABM BFC

References:

http://kellymom.com/bf/got-milk/supply-worries/enough-milk/

http://kellymom.com/hot-topics/milkproduction/