Nutrition for Premature Infants in the NICU
For a time, healthcare staff will care for your baby in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). There are several ways to feed babies while they’re in the NICU. A healthcare provider may start to feed your baby through an IV (tube that goes into the vein). A tube may be used to send formula or breastmilk into the baby’s stomach (a gavage feeding). Your baby may be able to go directly to breast or bottle feeding. The best method depends on your baby’s health and gestational age. Your baby will likely be feeding from a breast or bottle before leaving the NICU to go home.
What are babies fed in the NICU?
Total parenteral nutrition (TPN). This is a solution that provides all the nutrition your baby needs. Your baby gets this through his or her vein. Healthcare providers give TPN to most very early preemies. This is because their digestive systems are not yet mature, so they can’t absorb enough nutrition through regular feedings.
Breastmilk. Your baby can get nutrition through pumped breastmilk, with a gavage feeding or with a bottle. Many preemies learn to breastfeed while in the NICU. Ask the NICU staff about the best way to pump and store milk for your baby. If your baby is a preemie, the breastmilk may be mixed with a protein supplement to help your baby's growth. Breastmilk benefits premature babies because it reduces the chance of getting infections and is easiest to digest.
Formula. Special formulas are designed for preemies’ needs. The healthcare team will give this to your baby, with a gavage feeding or a bottle, if you are unable to breastfeed or choose not to. Sometimes it supplements breastmilk.
How does a baby move from TPN to full breast or bottle-feeding?
If your baby has started on TPN, moving to full breast or bottle-feeding may take