What Is a Nursing Supplementer?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on August 22, 2022
4 min read

A nursing supplementer is a device that can help with breastfeeding. There are several types, but they all follow the same idea. Nursing supplementer devices can help babies who are having difficulty with breastfeeding and make sure they're getting the amount of food they need to grow. Here’s what you need to know and nursing supplementers.

A nursing supplementer device, or supplemental nursing system (SNS), helps mothers breastfeed a baby who is having difficulty feeding. Breast milk is great for your baby since it contains all of the hormones and nutrients that they need to keep growing. Breast milk is usually easier for babies to digest since it's designed specifically for their bodies. This milk can help fight off infections, especially those in the gut.

With all of these benefits, many mothers choose to breastfeed as soon as their baby is born. Not only is this healthy, but it also provides a unique bonding experience between parent and child. Skin-to-skin contact helps your baby sleep and feed better, in addition to regulating breathing and stress levels. 

But some moms and babies have a hard time with breastfeeding for various reasons. Nursing supplementers increase the amount of milk that your baby gets during feeding to make sure they're getting good nutrition.

Different systems are used both in the hospital after birth and while nursing at home. Models may vary, but an at-breast nursing supplementer is a device that you use while your baby is actively nursing. A supplemental nursing system consists of a container or bottle that hangs around your neck with a thin tube attached to it. The bottle can be filled with:

  • Freshly-pumped breast milk
  • Donor milk
  • Infant formula 

The filled bottle can hang loosely around your neck on a cord, or some models clip onto your shirt. The thin tube has one end in the bottle, and the other end should be at your nipple. You can secure the tube to your chest with tape so that it doesn’t move. Once your baby begins to suck on your nipple, they will also suck on the tube that’s placed next to it. This gives them more milk or formula than just breastfeeding alone.

There are different models available, so you can talk to your doctor or lactation consultant about which one is the best for you.

Your lactation consultant or doctor may recommend a nursing supplementer if they notice that your baby is able to latch on but needs extra milk. Some babies latch on but take a while to improve their sucking and feeding skills. Babies that are premature, small, or unwell might get tired easily from sucking, so they don’t get enough milk.

Some babies need extra milk if they've lost weight and aren’t gaining it back quickly enough. Babies with low blood sugar or jaundice also need extra milk and nutrition. If you’ve been bottle-feeding your baby, they may have trouble returning to breastfeeding. They may expect milk to drip from the nipple the way it does from a bottle.

Additionally, some moms can’t produce enough milk alone and need to supplement with donor milk or formula. You may have trouble producing milk if you’ve had breast surgery.

Breastfeeding supplementers also open up new possibilities when it comes to adoptive parents and same-sex partners who did not carry the baby themselves. Many adoptive or nonbirth parents are interested in breastfeeding their baby for both health reasons and the chance to bond with their new child. Some try to induce lactation to create their own breast milk with medications or herbal supplements, accompanied by stimulating the breast and nipple with a pump.

Inducing lactation doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to produce enough milk to feed your baby. A supplemental nursing system gives nonbirth parents a way to enjoy the experience of breastfeeding their child while supplementing with donor milk or formula.

If you’re considering using a nursing supplementer, here are some of the pros and cons.

Advantages include:

  • No need for artificial nipples
  • Encourages your baby to learn how to breastfeed
  • May stimulate breast milk production
  • Gives your baby extra nutrition
  • May encourage your baby to prefer breastfeeding over bottles

Disadvantages include:

  • Can be complicated to learn how to use
  • Can be costly
  • Can take some time to clean
  • Hesitance to breastfeed in front of others
  • Supplies might not be available everywhere

To get started, you'll need to have pumped milk or formula ready to go. Wash your hands and then fill up the bottle of the SNS. Place the bottle around your neck and position it so that the top of the bottle is level with your nipple.

Next, hold down or tape the thin tube to your breast using paper tape. The end of the tube should be even with the tip of your nipple so your baby can easily reach them both. Bring your baby up to your nipple to nurse and have them latch on. If they don’t latch on to the supplemental tube right away, gently push it in through the corner of their mouth.

Monitor the flow of the milk. You can speed up the milk flow by lifting the bottle higher. Lowering the bottle will slow it down. You want your baby to suck once or twice every time they swallow. If the flow is too fast, your baby will usually let you know by pushing away, getting upset, or coughing.

Using a nursing supplementer takes some practice, but both you and your baby will get the hang of it. You shouldn’t get stressed or worried if it seems difficult in the first few days. Most mothers and babies adjust to using a supplementer within a few weeks. There are different models and sizes of tubes you can try to find the best one for you and your baby.