Tube feeding makes sure that your baby receives enough nutrients from breast milk or formula to grow and thrive. Most premature and sick babies will be fed in this way as they are too small and sick to feed themselves.
Babies have a high metabolism, their brains are developing and they are growing fast. Premature and sick babies have a limited supply of energy and nutrients, so it is important that they are able to take small nutritional feeds often, without decreasing their energy levels.
Additionally in premature infants the co-ordination of sucking, swallowing and breathing needed for feeding is not established until about 34 to 36 weeks’ gestation. This is why a tube is passed through their noses or mouths and down into their stomachs. This is called tube feeding.
There are two types of tube feeding used:
- Nasogastric tube feeding - This is when a baby is fed through a small soft tube, which is placed in the nose and runs down the back of the throat, through the food pipe (oesophagus) and into the stomach.
- Orogastric tube feeding - This is when a baby is fed through a small soft tube, which is placed in the mouth and runs down the back of the throat, through the food pipe (oesophagus) and into the stomach.
You may notice your baby opening and closing his/her mouth, putting out his/her tongue or sucking fingers during a tube feed. This shows that he/she is ready to practise sucking.
If your baby is well enough to come out of the incubator, give him/her lots of opportunities to be at your breast so he/she can enjoy being close. When they are more mature and interested enough, some babies will start licking milk and, eventually, practice-sucking. It’s a good idea to have your baby by the breast while he/she is having a tube-feed.
This is an excellent opportunity to try Kangaroo Care, which is skin-to-skin contact between parents and babies. Benefits include improvements with lactation and with establishing breastfeeding, and better weight gain for the baby. In the longer term, it helps parents to feel closer to their babies and more confident with caring for them.
Ask staff on the unit for more information, or visit our skin-to-skin and kangaroo care page
Premature babies won’t breastfeed ‘properly’ and take much milk until they are mature enough to co-ordinate breathing, sucking and swallowing. Although sucking practice does not provide them with a feed, it’s important for their digestion, growth and well-being, and boosts your milk supply.
If your baby is being bottle-fed and is well enough to come out of the incubator, you can start to try skin-to-skin contact. This can help settle your baby while he/she is feeding and strengthen your bond.
Once your baby is mature enough, the neonatal staff will be able to provide you with a dummy so that your baby can start practising sucking.