Premature babies face an increased risk of heart problems. Thicker heart walls, small heart chambers and impaired heart function are some of the conditions they could face as they get older.

But there’s some good news when it comes to helping them overcome these challenges: New research has shown that breastfeeding premature babies might increase their heart health as they become young adults, as opposed to their counterparts raised on formula or a mixture of formula and breast milk.

“Breast milk is the best option for nourishing any baby, especially those born premature,” said Lauren Johnson-Robbins, MD, FAAP, a neonatologist at Geisinger Medical Center’s Janet Weis Children’s Hospital.

Breast milk provides premature babies with the vitamins, calories and protein that can help them fight infection, which they may be more susceptible to because their immune systems haven’t fully developed.

However, it can be difficult for a premature baby to breastfeed.

Babies born before 32 to 34 weeks may have a difficult time with the suck-swallow-breath reflex that’s needed to breastfeed properly. A premature baby’s stomach muscles may also be underdeveloped, making it more difficult to eat properly.

Mothers of premature babies may initially have a difficult time with their milk supply if their baby isn’t able to begin breastfeeding right away, as is often the case with premature babies.

“Mothers of premature babies should begin pumping their breast milk as soon as possible if their infant is too young to breastfeed,” said Dr. Johnson-Robbins. “This will help keep the milk supply up so when the infant is old enough to breastfeed on her own, she’ll have plenty of milk.”

When a premature infant is old enough to begin breastfeeding, it’s important to start slow with a combination of breastfeeding and pumping breast milk for bottle feedings until you and your doctor can ensure the baby is getting enough milk through breastfeeding. 

Breastfeeding an infant, especially if premature, can be difficult. However, the medical benefits are worth it. Babies who consume breast milk for the first six months of their lives experience lower instances of respiratory illnesses, ear infections and diarrhea.

In addition, breastfeeding can also reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), a rare condition in which babies up to 12 months old die in their sleep. Infants aged two to four months old are most at risk. Doctors don’t know what causes it, but the babies most at risk are the ones born premature, with a low birth weight, born to mothers who did not receive adequate medical care during their pregnancies or born to mothers who smoked throughout their pregnancies.