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Supplemental Feeding: What and Why

When it comes to feeding your baby, breast milk is always best. It contains all of the nutrients your baby needs to grow, along with substances that help boost baby's immune system and protect against infections.

But sometimes babies have trouble nursing or need extra nutrition. In those cases, your doctor might recommend adding formula or fortifying your breast milk.

Premature or Low-Birth-Weight Babies

Any baby who is born before the 37th week of pregnancy is called "premature" or "preterm." These babies are usually smaller than a full-term baby and have special feeding needs.

The more premature a baby is, the more help he or she will need to eat. Babies who are born before 34 weeks may not be able yet to suck and swallow milk from their mother's breast. To start, they may be fed through a vein. They'll get a fluid mix that contains sugar, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals to help them grow.

As babies get bigger, they can take breast milk or formula through a small tube inserted through their nose or mouth into their stomach. This is called gavage feeding.

Trouble Latching On

Babies who are born early have more trouble suckling and swallowing -- actions that they need to master so they can nurse. Sometimes even full-term babies can't quite latch on to their mother's breast.

If the baby is having trouble nursing, you can pump breast milk or supplement with formula. To feed a baby who can't latch on to the breast, you can use a spoon, medicine cup, or syringe.

Other Reasons to Supplement

Your doctor might also recommend supplementing breast milk with formula or switching over to formula if your baby is in one of these situations:

  • Low blood sugar
  • Dehydrated
  • Loses too much body weight
  • Has a high level of jaundice
  • Can't get enough nutrition because he's not nursing well or you aren't producing enough milk

Supplement Options

Many premature babies can tolerate breast milk. In fact, it's an ideal source of nutrition. Yet for babies who are born very small, breast milk might not be enough. Here are a few other feeding options your doctor might recommend.

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