Premature infant's inability to feed orally

Before the gestational age of 32 to 34 weeks, a premature infant cannot feed by mouth because of:

  • Poor coordination (or lack) of sucking, swallowing, and gag reflex.
  • Weakness of both the oral and stomach muscles.
  • Small stomach capacity.

Until the 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 vein.

When the infant is mature enough to feed from a nipple, oral feedings are introduced. As the infant grows stronger, oral feedings are gradually increased over a period of days or weeks.

The premature infant has higher-than-usual energy demands on his or her system after birth. Whether an infant is breast-fed, bottle-fed, tube-fed, or fed parenterally, a high-calorie supplement may be added to his or her diet to maximize growth and healing.

Last Updated: May 5, 2009

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