Parenteral nutrition (PN)

Parenteral nutrition, also known as PN, is used to feed extremely premature or very sick babies.

What is parenteral nutrition (PN)?

Parenteral nutrition (PN) is nutrition in a liquid form that is given directly into your baby’s bloodstream intravenously (through a vein). The solution has nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, proteins and fats. It is called total parenteral nutrition (TPN) where it is used as the only source of nutrition.

How does PN work?

PN provides food to help your baby grow. An infusion pump is used to deliver the nutrition to your baby. This allows a stream of nutrients to flow into the bloodstream over a period of time. In newborn babies it is common for the vein in the baby’s umbilical cord to be used for this.

A doctor or advanced neonatal nurse practitioner will insert a tube (catheter) into your baby’s umbilical cord (tummy button). The nutrition passes through this into the bloodstream. After some time, if your baby still needs PN, they will place another tube (called a long line) into one of your baby’s veins (usually the arms or legs). They will then remove the tube in the tummy button.

At first, this may be their only source of nutrition.

Why does my baby need to be fed using PN?

Although very premature and sick babies can have milk feeds, these often need to be introduced gradually so their gut can learn to cope with them. Very premature babies are usually fed using PN at first, as they have an immature digestive system that needs time to develop enough so they can tolerate enough milk to meet their nutritional needs. For both very premature and sick babies, PN can be used to make sure they get enough nutrition and can start to grow while they are gradually introduced to feeds.

We understand that seeing your baby being fed using PN can be quite scary. But it will allow your baby to feed without reducing their energy. It also enables them to absorb the nutrients required to grow.

When will my baby stop needing PN?

As your baby begins to grow and becomes stronger, a method called tube feeding will be introduced. This is so your baby can start to have milk. Tube feeding is where breast milk or formula is given through a tube passed into your baby’s nose or mouth to their stomach. Milk feeds will be introduced as soon as possible alongside PN.

Once tube feeding has been established, PN will stop. Some babies need PN for a week or two, but others can take longer.

We have more information about tube feeding that you may find helpful.