What Is a Supplemental Nursing System?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on April 14, 2023
4 min read

You might have heard the old adage ‘breast is best’ when it comes to feeding your baby. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, your baby’s introduction to breastfeeding doesn’t go as planned. This can happen for many reasons, but it’s usually due to low milk production. That’s where a supplemental nursing system comes in.

A supplemental nursing system is a device that brings nutrition to your baby as you breastfeed. Milk or formula is stored in containers, with tubes attached, that deliver the food to your hungry baby’s mouth as they breastfeed.

Supplemental nursing systems can look different, but all serve the same basic function. Generally, there is a bottle or small bag filled with infant formula or breast milk. Small tubes draw milk from the bottle and deliver it to your baby, often at the same time as you breastfeed.

The tubes are usually fastened to the mother using medical tape. This ensures that the fluid becomes the same temperature as the mother, and the baby can nurse comfortably.

There are many advantages to using a supplemental nursing system (SNS). When a mother’s milk production is low, the baby can get frustrated and have difficulty latching onto the nipple. With an SNS, the baby receives enough milk from both the breast and the tube to be satisfied.

An SNS is used when your breasts don’t produce enough milk for your baby. Using an SNS isn’t just for your baby. It also helps the mother produce more milk.

When the breast is stimulated through nursing, your body produces a hormone called prolactin. Prolactin is the hormone that encourages milk production, and mothers who have a low milk supply are usually low in prolactin.

A low milk supply can happen for many reasons such as:

  • You’ve had breast surgery.
  • You smoke or drink alcohol.
  • You’re lacking sleep.
  • You're on certain birth control.
  • You give your baby formula and don’t breastfeed.
  • You start your baby on solid foods before they’re 4-6 months old.

There are a few types of supplemental nursing systems that you can choose from. Consult with a lactation consultant to see which option might work for you and your baby.

Homemade system. If you’re new to supplemental nursing, you might want to try a homemade option before buying a new system. You can use a regular baby bottle with a rubber teat and an infant nasogastric feeding tube. Nurses and lactation consultants often keep these tubes handy for new mothers. 

Cut a small slit into the rubber teat and push the end of the tube through it down to the supplement fluid. Poke a hole through the teat, or use one with a vent. That way, your baby won’t face too much resistance as they empty the bottle. Note, the tubes aren’t built to be sterilized, so you’ll have to toss them when they become hard.

Disposable bag system. This system comes with sterile disposable bags that hold breast milk or a supplement. The bags are small and they hang from a string around the mother’s neck. A small, thin tube runs from the top of the bag to the baby’s mouth. The milk only flows when the baby is latched onto the tube and breast, which potentially eliminates any mess. The supplement bags are small and discreet, making them ideal for travel and feeding when out.

Bottle system. The bottle system uses two bottles, each with a tube attached. This makes switching sides a little easier. There are usually different tube widths to choose from. Both the bottles and tubes can be cleaned, making this a more eco-friendly option. You can use clamps to stop the milk from flowing or unclamp to feed your baby. Adjust the tube width to tailor the supply to your baby’s needs.

While supplemental nursing systems can be very helpful, a goal of SNS is to stimulate the mother’s hormone production to increase milk supply. Follow these tips to help increase your supply to your baby’s demand:

  • Breastfeed every time your baby is hungry, which could be as often as every 1-2 hours in the early months.
  • Try to let the baby nurse from both breasts at each feeding. 
  • Try to avoid bottles and dummies in the first few weeks. While you’re still establishing your milk supply, you’ll need all of the hormone prolactin you can get. Your body makes the hormone when your baby latches.
  • Eat a healthy diet, and get as much sleep as possible.
  • Pump when you’re away from your baby. It can help increase your milk supply.