Mother’s Milk in the NICU: Exploring the Many Benefits of Breast Milk

Providing mother’s milk is the most helpful thing a mum can do for her baby who is in the NICU or Special Care Unit. This is because breast milk is not only nutrition, it is a medical intervention.

Mother’s milk is specifically designed for your baby and it has many amazing properties that we will have a further look at in this article.

Let’s take a look at just a few of the many benefits of breast milk...

It All Starts with Powerful Colostrum

Colostrum is the first milk you produce for your baby. It actually starts developing in your breasts from around 16 weeks of pregnancy, so even if your baby is born early your body can still provide powerful colostrum.

Colostrum is jam-packed with factors that help grow and develop your baby’s gut, which is super important, as this is one of the main ways to help fight off bacteria and infection.

What is truly amazing about colostrum is that the concentration of these components is highest the earlier the baby is born. So those babies who are born preterm and need the most support from the NICU are also getting extra protection from their mum’s colostrum. This is why it is so important for babies to have colostrum, especially when a baby is born premature.

Mother’s Milk Contains Beneficial Living Cells

It has fairly recently been discovered that fresh mother’s milk contains thousands to millions of live cells per milliliter!

With every gulp, your baby is drinking these awesome tiny cells which have many jobs keeping the body’s system healthy and regulated. Among these are white blood cells, which give an extra boost of protection for the baby as their main job is to protect the body from infection.

Scientists have recently found stem cells in mother’s milk. These cells are believed to act as an internal building and repair system for all of the body. It’s just like having your very own car mechanic swimming around making sure everything runs smoothly.

Giving Baby an Antibody Boost

Antibodies help to fight off germs. Antibodies in breast milk are super clever as they can “learn” to fight off the germs specifically surrounding the breast area.

When a mum and baby breastfeed they are touching really closely. They are surrounded by the same germs. This means the antibodies help fight the germs the baby and mum are surrounded by during feeding, perfect!

That said, if your baby is staying in the NICU or special care unit and you need to express milk for your baby then you may be surrounded by different germs. This is just one of the many great reasons the nurses will show you how to gently touch your baby or hold baby in skin to skin care.

When you are close to your baby, you start to make antibodies in your milk to specifically fight the germs in the baby’s surroundings. It is good to express your milk, whilst you are in skin to skin care or straight after you have been holding or touching your baby. You will find that this helps you get more milk out too!

Mother’s Milk Contains Healthy Fats

Fats, like the healthy omega-3 fats we all try and eat more of, are also absolutely essential for every baby. Mother’s milk contains the perfect amount of fats which work to maximise baby’s brain growth and development.

As you can imagine, this is incredibly important for babies who are born preterm as their brain has more growing still to do.

Any Amount of Breast Milk is Helpful

What is really amazing about mother’s milk is that any amount of it has significant benefits for the health of your baby.

Some mum’s who have low milk supply issues often ask whether it is worth continuing to express/breastfeed if they are only getting small milk volumes. Well, the science shows us that YES it is most definitely worth feeding any amount of mother’s milk to your baby! Literally, every drop counts!

The science shows that the more mother’s milk which is given results in a decreasing risk of disease. Every additional 10 mL, per kg, per day, of mother’s milk fed to a baby in the NICU or special care unit reduces the baby’s risk of infection by 19%.

Feeding mother’s milk doesn’t just have a reduced risk of infection during the baby’s time in the NICU or special care unit, but it leads to a reduced risk of disease over a lifetime.

The more we find out about the properties in mother’s milk the more amazed we are. Don’t be afraid to ask for help to provide milk for your baby in the NICU or Special Care Unit. The nurses, midwives and lactation consultants are all trained to help you. You can also find good support through these links:

Australian Breastfeeding Association – ABA Helpline

1800 686 2 686 (1800 mum 2 mum)

Maternal and Child Health Nurse Local Breastfeeding Centres

Contact your local council

Private Lactation consultants



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Do you have a story to share about breastfeeding in the NICU? Which of the many benefits of mother’s milk do you find most amazing? Please join the here or on our Facebook page.