If your premature infant was born before the gestational age of 32 to 34 weeks, he or she cannot feed by mouth. This is because of:
- Poor coordination (or lack) of sucking,
swallowing, and gag reflex.
- Weakness of both the oral and stomach
- Small stomach capacity.
Until your infant becomes stronger and more mature,
tube feeding is used to feed milk, formula, or a
combination of the two directly into the stomach. For the infant whose
gastrointestinal tract cannot yet digest properly or is affected by
necrotizing enterocolitis, intravenous
(parenteral) feedings are given through a tube into
the umbilical site (umbilical catheter) or into a
When your infant is mature enough to feed from a nipple, oral
feedings are introduced. Over a period of days or weeks, you can gradually replace more
tube or IV feedings with breast-feedings.
Premature infants, including those born at 34 to almost 37 weeks, often have trouble with oral feedings and may need extra help.
In some cases, doctors advise adding a thickening agent to a baby's milk. Talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits before using one. If at any time you are having trouble feeding your baby, talk to your doctor or nurse about it.
Breast-feeding your premature baby
Your infant will probably need to start slowly
with breast-feeding. Usually, one or two breast-feedings a day are enough to
start. As your baby gains strength and weight, you can start to feed from the breast more often. When your baby is stronger, try to feed your baby directly at the breast for all feedings. If needed, you can use a syringe, cup, or other device to feed breast milk to your baby.
Premature infants can have trouble learning to breast-feed. If you find
yourself feeling frustrated or worried about it, get help. Both the nurses
and your lactation consultant have years of experience with feeding
As your infant feeds more by mouth, you may not be there
for all of your baby's oral feedings. So your infant may need to bottle-feed
too. Work with the nurses and lactation consultant to decide whether and
when to introduce a bottle. This may help your baby avoid nipple confusion,
which is a baby's preference for an artificial nipple over the breast.
If you are undecided about breast-feeding, consider keeping your options
open. You can pump to keep your milk supply going until you've had time to
decide. Any amount of breast milk offers your premature infant greater
protection from infection than no breast milk at all. But keep in mind that
anything you put in your body can be passed to your baby in breast milk. If you
are breast-feeding, do not drink alcohol, take drugs, or smoke. And before you
take any kind of medicine, herb, or vitamin, ask your doctor if it is
In some cases, your health care team may suggest that you use donated breast milk from an accredited milk bank. To find out more about this, including how much it costs, talk with your doctor, nurse, or lactation consultant.