17th November is World Prematurity Day and the world is turning purple! Roughly one in ten babies is born prematurely. Working on several neonatal units across Europe has allowed me the privilege of being part of many of the journeys that these little ones and their parents have to make.
Long hospital stays and the medical complications frequently involved with prematurity make those early days very challenging. Nonetheless, I am always touched by the fighting spirit, and the deep well of emotional resources that sustain the families and this is why today is important to me.
The challenges of taking care of a premature baby do not always end with discharge from hospital; some babies have special needs, others are more prone to catching lung infections. Being a parent of a preterm baby comes with its own challenges but also rewards. Postnatal recovery of mums and couples often suffers because of time spent at the hospital, yet few things are as wonderful as finally taking your little fighter home. It is often the case that parents only realise how stressful the hospital stay was once they are home.
In order to support all preemie parents, I have put together a little guide for introducing solids to your premature baby:
When to start?
The gut of a preterm baby develops a little faster than that of a term baby. This is why it is safe to start introducing solids between the corrected age of 3 to 7 months. It is more important that your little one is ready from a developmental point of view. Look for the same signs of readiness as in a term baby:
- Stable head and neck control
- Sitting without support or with very little support
- Grasping for food and taking it towards the mouth
- Vanished reflex of the tongue to push out food
How to start?
Start in the same way as you would start with a term baby. Try dark-green vegetables first and then a variety of fruits and vegetables. Both soft finger foods and purees are safe. Babies born before 30 weeks, who were on breathing support whilst in the hospital, or babies who underwent surgery might be more likely to have problems with feeding, and may struggle with lumps. It will take a little bit of trial and error until you and your baby have found a way, which works for both of you.
Most premature babies have low iron storage, so make sure you introduce iron-rich foods early on. Try beans and lentils for plant-based sources and red meat for animal-based sources. Combine them with a dose of Vitamin C (e.g. some fruit for dessert) to increase iron absorption.
A good source of Omega 3 is important as well, so use rapeseed oil as a plant-based source and add oily fish to your meals at least once per week.
Be persistent and keep offering lumpier food to train your baby’s tongue and oral muscles. It also helps with speech development later on.
Finally, preterm babies can be more prone to catching lung infections and this can throw them back with eating. It is perfectly ok for them to take a break from solids and take time to recover.
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