Premature babies, often called preemies, arrive earlier than the expected 38-42 weeks gestation. Because a premature baby’s organs are often not fully developed, they are at risk for health complications, such as breathing problems, infection, anemia, and low blood sugar. Depending on which complications arise, a premature baby’s nutrition may initially take a backseat to the larger issues. Breast milk, though, has been shown to play a crucial role in improving the health of premature infants.

Some premature babies won’t be able to breastfeed initially because they are not strong enough and their sucking-swallowing coordination is not yet developed. Also, because the gastrointestinal tract of many premature babies is often not yet fully developed, they must be fed very slowly and carefully, usually through a tube that is placed through the mouthor nose directly into the stomach. But that doesn’t mean that these babies shouldn’t receive breast milk. In fact, breast milk contains many important antibodies that help fight disease and prevent infection, a benefit crucial to vulnerable preemies.

Another benefit of breast milk is that it plays an important role in preventing problems specific to preemies. An important area of study has been the protective effects of breast milk against necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a serious intestinal infection. One study showed that infants who received formula were more likely to develop NEC than infants fed breast milk. Some studies have suggested that premature infants fed their mother's breast milk were less likely to develop any kind of infection.

While mothers of premature babies naturally produce milk tailored to the needs of their small offspring, preemie breast milk may also be fortified with supplements called “human milk fortifiers” to provide additional needed calcium, vitamins, and protein. Clinical evidence has shown that preemies who received fortified breast milk experienced improved growth and a better nutritional status.