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How Do Premature Babies Catch Up?

It is increasingly common for babies to arrive before their expected due date. Here is some information and other useful details if you are new parents to a premature baby or if your baby is likely to arrive early.

Catch-up growth

Did you know that in order to reach the growth rate of a full-term baby, premature babies go through a catch-up growth phase and have much greater nutritional needs than those of a baby born at term? (1).

Equally, the simple acts of breathing and digestion are a major challenge for these still immature babies. They are not yet able to regulate their body temperature on their own, and are also very sensitive, as their digestive and immune systems are still immature (2). It is therefore important in the first instance to build up their immune system and provide their bodies with all the nutrients they need to quickly reach the maturity that they did not have time to achieve during pregnancy.

What are the specific needs of premature babies?

  • Premature babies often have low energy reserves in the form of carbohydrates and fats. Fats are especially important for your baby because they provide a lot of energy. Fats also provide vitamins and essential fatty acids, including omegas 6 and 3.
  • Proteins are the mainstay of body growth. As your premature baby is going through a period of strong growth, he or she will have a higher protein requirement. It is therefore particularly important that your baby receives sufficient quantities of protein. (3,4)
  • Carbohydrates also provide quickly usable energy, which your infant needs more than other babies.
  • Minerals are also necessary, especially calcium and phosphorus because of their key role in the development of bones and teeth. (5)

Breast milk: natural immune protection from the first days after birth

Breast milk is the best food for premature babies. It contains particularly important nutrients, which play a specific role in resistance to infections during the first days of life. It is also extremely digestible.

However, breast milk alone may not be enough to meet the very high nutritional needs of premature infants. (1,6) In fact, the daily volume of milk that a premature infant can tolerate is often not sufficient to meet their nutritional needs. For this reason, it is recommended that you seek advice from your healthcare professional. They may prescribe additional nutrients to enrich breast milk, in the form of a breast milk fortifier and/or a protein supplement. This will ensure your premature baby obtains a sufficient amount of the nutrients and energy required during this “rapid growth” phase, while still enjoying the many benefits of breast milk.

Young Baby

Feeding your premature baby optimally at home

Very premature babies, in particular, are often not yet able to drink enough at the breast.(7-9) In the initial stages, the maternity unit can use long-term infusion to ensure absorption of sufficient quantities of the necessary nutrients and fluids. Your baby’s tiny stomach can only hold very small amounts of food. This is why they will be fed very frequently on the maternity ward: up to 12 times a day. Once at home, weight gain remains an essential issue.

Breast milk is still the ideal food for your baby. If you cannot breastfeed, or if you are not breastfeeding often enough, ask your doctor for advice on a diet suited to your baby’s specific needs.

Rest assured that even after you return home, your baby’s development will be fully monitored by your paediatrician, who will take over their medical care.

Further Reading

It is increasingly common for babies to arrive before their expected due date. Here is some information and other useful details if you are new parents to a premature baby or if your baby is likely to arrive early.

Some babies simply cannot wait until the calculated date of birth. They enter the world earlier than full-term infants. This leads to challenges for baby and mom. Here you will find information and facts about these little fighters.


  1. Agostoni, Carlo, et al. « Enteral nutrient supply for preterm infants: commentary from the European Society of Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition Committee on Nutrition. » Journal of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition1 (2010) : 85-91.
  2. À quels problèmes de santé les bébés prématurés sont-ils confrontés ? 2013. Disponible sur: Newborn health: Challenges facing preterm babies ( [consulté le: 14/10/2021]
  3. Koletzko-Uauy-Pointdexter. (2014) 110: 297-299. Recommended nutrient intake levels for stable, fully enterally fed very low birth weight infants. Dans: Koletzko-Uauy-Pointdexter (dir.). Nutritional care of preterm infants: Scientific basis and practical guidelines. Karger, Bâle, Suisse.
  4. Recommandations de l’OMS en matière d’alimentation du nourrisson. Disponible sur : OMS | Recommandations de l’OMS en matière d’alimentation du nourrisson ( [consulté le 21 octobre 2021].
  5. Rustico, S. E., Calabria, A. C., & Garber, S. J. (2014). Metabolic bone disease of prematurity. Journal of clinical & translational endocrinology, 1(3), 85-91. [En ligne]: Metabolic bone disease of prematurity ( (consulté le 27/10/2021).
  6. Koletzko, B., et al. Nutritional Care of Preterm Infants. Scientific Basis and Practical Guidelines, World Rev Nutr Diet, Karger 110 (2014) : 304-305.
  7. Tsang, R.C., et al. Nutrition of the preterm infant; scientific basis and practical guidelines. 2e éd. Digital Educational Publishing Inc, Cincinnati 2005.
  8. Klein, C.J. Nutrient requirements for preterm infant formulas. J Nutr 132 (2002): 1395S-1549S.
    [En ligne]: Nutrient Requirements For Preterm Infant Formulas | The Journal of Nutrition | Oxford Academic ( (consulté le 27/10/2021).
  9. Geigy Scientific Tables. (1975). 7e éd. Bâle, Suisse, Ciba-Geigy, Ltd.

Important notice

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Breastmilk is the ideal food for infants: it is best adapted to their specific needs. A healthy and balanced diet of the mother is important for the preparation and continuation of breastfeeding. Mixed breastfeeding can interfere with breastfeeding and reduce milk production. It’s hard to reverse the choice of not breastfeeding. If an infant formula is used for a non-breastfed baby, it is important to carefully observe the instructions for preparation and use and to follow the advice of the medical profession. Incorrect use could pose a risk to the child’s health. Socio-economic implications must be considered in the use of infant formula. After 6 months, in addition to breastmilk, water is the only essential drink. Do not hesitate to consult your health care professional if you need advice on feeding your baby.