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How do I get my baby to eat?

Before your baby is discharged from the NICU, it important for you to be able to feed your baby. Your baby will go home on breast milk or commercially prepared formula milk. Both will meet your baby's needs unless your doctor tells you otherwise. Some babies may need a special formula. The doctors and nurses will let you know if this is necessary.

In the beginning, premature or sick babies are unable to be given anything by mouth. Most of the baby's energy is used for growing, so the baby is less likely to properly digest anything in his stomach. Therefore, many of these babies receive their first feedings intravenously (IV). IV solutions must be given in carefully measured amounts. The IV solution has the calories, vitamins and minerals your baby's body needs to grow and get well. Your baby will be started on feedings as soon as doctors feel he or she is ready.

Breast milk is recommended to be the best source of nutrition for your baby. In addition to nutrients, breast milk provides your baby with antibodies and other substances to help fight infection. An electric breast pump is available for your use in the NICU. We have a special policy about storing breast milk at the hospital. Ask your nurse for instructions. For mothers who cannot or choose not to breastfeed, a formula appropriate for your baby will be chosen.

Premature babies often initially have difficulty with bottle or breastfeeding because unlike full-term babies, they are unable to coordinate their sucking, swallowing and breathing efforts. Until the baby can coordinate this, he will be tube fed. Most babies do not find the feeding tube uncomfortable. As a rule, feedings by mouth (or oral feedings) are not started until the baby reaches 32-33 weeks gestation. This is the age at which we know babies suck their thumbs in the womb. While the baby is tube fed, sucking remains important. Babies are often given pacifiers during tube feedings to encourage a stronger suck for later oral feedings

Tube feedings can be given continuously in small amounts or in a "bolus" feeding where a set amount of formula or breast milk is given every so many hours. When the baby tolerates bolus feedings without spitting up, oral feedings will be tried. Usually oral feedings are started one time a day. The number of oral feedings is gradually increased while the number of tube feedings is decreased, until the baby is taking all feedings by mouth. The rate at which feedings are advanced is individual for each baby.