This month, Medela Australia had the great opportunity to sit down with Dr Sharon Perrella, from the Hartmann Human Lactation Research Group in the University of Western Australia. I wanted to ask Sharon about some of the latest science on feeding a preterm baby and also find out some more about the Hartmann Human Lactation Research Group which we are lucky enough to have working here in Australia.

I hope you enjoy this interview!

Your Specialty is with Babies in the Neonatal Ward; Can You Tell Us a Little About Your Research?

A few years ago, I did some research to find out how quickly a preterm baby’s stomach empties after the baby has been fed. I am now involved in breastfeeding studies for babies born early and healthy term babies, looking at how babies breastfeed and what is in the milk.

How Can Your Research Relate to What a Mum May See in Her Own Baby?

A preterm baby’s stomach empties quite quickly after a feed, so mums in the neonatal ward will see that their babies are fed every few hours. They may also wake less than 3 hours after a feed.

We know that it takes time for sick and early babies to learn to breastfeed. Sometimes these babies don’t have a lot of energy. So, mums may find that the baby gets tired quickly or falls asleep at the breast.

Are There Good Ways to See if Your Baby Has Had Enough to Eat?

For babies born early, the doctors have to carefully manage the amount and timing of feeds. These babies often have set feeding times and this may be continued after discharge home.

Once a mum feels that her baby is healthy and big enough to ask for feeds (“demand feeding”), she can watch for hunger cues and signs that he has taken enough milk from the breast. Demand fed babies will take different amounts from the breast at each feed, just like we have different sized meals and snacks throughout the day.

Babies may breastfeed from both sides at some feeds and one side for other feeds.

If the baby is settled and is no longer interested in attaching to the breast, he has probably had enough for that feed. If you are not sure, you can always offer the breast again.

Can You Tell Us Why Babies Who Are Born Early May Take Longer to Get to Full Breastfeeding?

Babies that are born early are thought to have a weaker suck than those born around their due date. Also, these babies have low energy levels, so they may suck for a shorter time and need longer rests when sucking at the breast.

It can take time for an early baby to develop the skills and energy needed to remove enough milk at every feed; most are able to do this close to the time they were due to be born.

Are There Any Tips You Would Want All Mothers to Know When They Think About Breastfeeding in the Neonatal Ward?

Breastfeeding your early baby takes time and patience; each baby develops and learns at their own rate so try not to compare to the other babies around you.

Skin to skin cuddles and having your baby spend time at the breast each day will help both of you to get more comfortable with breastfeeding.

It is normal for early babies to have some breastfeeds go well and others where they are sleepy at the breast; your baby’s progress will be more obvious when you compare from one week to the next, rather than from one day to the next.

How Has Your Research Changed the Clinical Practice of the Health Professionals Which Support Mothers and Babies Breastfeeding?

Having an understanding of how quickly an early baby’s stomach empties after a feed has helped health professionals and breastfeeding mothers to understand breastfed babies’ feeding patterns.

It is helpful to have the science to explain that the frequent feeding pattern of many young breastfed babies is absolutely normal.

Can You Tell Us a Little Bit About the Hartmann Human Lactation and Research Team – What Significance Does it Have for Lactation Research Around the World?

Our research team has a strong history of contributing to the scientific understanding of how breastfeeding works. We are expanding the knowledge of lactation and breastfeeding by using many different methods to measure breastfeeding mums and babies.

Ultrasound is used to provide a view of the baby’s mouth and tongue action during breastfeeding while we measure the strength of the baby’s suck, coordination of sucking, swallowing and breathing, and the amount of milk removed from the breast.

I am leading several studies that focus on breastfeeding mothers and babies in special situations; we are examining babies born early, babies with tongue tie, mothers that use a nipple shield, and babies with sucking problems.

The knowledge gained from these studies will help health professionals to understand and provide improved help for mothers and babies with breastfeeding challenges.

What Studies Are You Working on Right Now. What Do You Have Planned?

I am studying the development of early babies’ breastfeeding skills by measuring their feeding behaviours, sucking patterns and amounts of milk taken from the breast during the stay in the neonatal ward.

Babies in the neonatal ward may use a bottle when their mother isn’t available to breastfeed at night, so I will also look at the effect of a standard teat and vacuum triggered teat on sucking patterns in early babies.

Information gained from this study will help us to understand how early babies learn to breastfeed and will help health professionals to provide the best care to support breastfeeding.

Thank you Sharon for sharing some invaluable knowledge with us today. For more information about feeding your preterm baby please follow our link.

What did you think of our interview with Sharon Perrella, Research Associate with the Hartmann Human Lactation Research Group? What other breastfeeding questions would you like us to answer in a future expert interview? Let’s have a chat!

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