Tube feeding

Your baby may be fed using tube feeding while on the neonatal unit. Find out why this might be and information about caring for your baby while they are being tube fed.

What is tube feeding?

During tube feeding, breast milk or formula is given through a tube passed into your baby’s nose or mouth to their stomach. Types of tube feeding include the following:

  • Nasogastric tube feeding (also called an NG tube) - 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.

Babies who are very premature or sick may need to be fed using parenteral nutrition (PN) at first.

Why does my baby need to be fed using tube feeding?

Tube feeding is often used to feed premature and sick babies as they can be too small and sick to breastfeed or bottle feed at first. Babies born premature or sick have a low supply of energy and nutrients, so it is important that they are able to have small nutritional feeds often, without lowering their energy levels.

In babies born premature, the coordination of sucking, swallowing and breathing needed for effective feeding is usually not fully established until about 32 to 34 weeks’ gestation (although this is different for different babies). Babies born at term and sick may also take longer to co-ordinate feeding. Tube feeding will help your baby receive enough nutrition to grow and develop.

Can I be involved in caring for my baby if they are being tube fed?

Yes, you can. Staff on the neonatal unit will encourage you to be as involved as possible in the care of your baby on the neonatal unit. If you feel comfortable doing so, they should show you and your partner how to give tube feeds. Staff on the neonatal unit will explain how tube feeding works and will teach you how to:

  • Check the tube is in the correct position before feeding
  • Prepare the milk and fill the syringe that is connected to the feeding tube
  • Position your baby correctly for tube feeds
  • Give the milk slowly to support comfortable digestion
  • Know what to look for during a feed.

This can feel quite scary at first, but with practice you should gain confidence. You will have the time to give the milk very slowly which helps your baby to digest more comfortably.

If your baby is well enough to come out of the incubator, you and your partner can also practice skin-to-skin contact with your baby while they are tube feeding. Skin-to-skin contact has lots of benefits for you and your baby, and helps parents to feel closer to their baby and more confident in caring for them.

When can my baby stop tube feeding?

In time, you may notice your baby demonstrating feeding cues during a tube feed. For example, they may open and close their mouth, put out their tongue or suck their fingers during a tube feed. This shows that they might be ready to practise breastfeeding or bottle feeding.

If you are planning to breastfeed and your baby is well enough to come out of the incubator, giving them lots of opportunities to be close to the breast may help them to learn to breastfeed. During a tube feed may be a good time to do this. When they are more mature and interested enough, some babies will start licking milk and in time practice sucking. As your baby starts to take more breast and bottle feeds, they will not need as many top-ups of milk from the feeding tube. This will depend on your baby’s energy levels and their ability to coordinate sucking, swallowing and breathing.

Some parents have concerns about their baby changing from tube feeding to breastfeeding, as it is more difficult to measure how much milk their baby is having. Your baby will show signs that they are receiving enough milk, such as feeding cues and wet and dirty nappies. The healthcare team supporting you will monitor your baby’s feeding and will manage any top-ups that might be needed. Talk to a member of staff on your unit if you have any concerns.

What will happen if my baby needs to go home from the neonatal unit with a feeding tube?

If your baby is going home with a feeding tube, a member of unit staff will show you how to feed and care for the tube yourself. It may be you or your community neonatal nurse who will replace the tube when you go home. This will depend on your baby’s needs, your preferences, and the support the unit provides.

Support will always be available if you do not feel comfortable with replacing the tube yourself. If you have any questions or concerns, talk to the unit staff.