Premature babies need to receive good nutrition so they reach a weight close what they would have gained if they were still inside the womb.
Babies born less than 37 weeks in the womb (premature) have different nutritional needs than babies born at full term (38 to 42 weeks).
Premature babies will often stay in the neonatal intensive care unit. There they are watched closely to make sure they are getting the right balance of fluids and nutrition.
Incubators or special warmers help babies maintain their body temperature. This reduces the energy the babies have to use to stay warm. Moist air is also used to help them maintain body temperature and avoid fluid loss.
Babies born before 34 weeks often have problems feeding from a bottle or a breast. This is because they have a hard time coordinating sucking, breathing, and swallowing.
Other illness can also interfere with a newborn’s ability to feed through a nipple. Some of these include:
Newborn babies that are very small or sick may need to get nutrition and fluids through a vein (IV).
As they get stronger, they can start to get milk or formula through a tube that goes into the stomach through the nose or mouth. This is called gavage feeding. The amount of milk or formula is increased very slowly. This reduces the risk of an intestinal infection called necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). Babies who are fed human milk are less likely to get NEC.
Babies who are less premature (born at or after 34 weeks gestation) often can be fed from a bottle or the mother's breast. Premature babies may have an easier time with breastfeeding than bottle feeding at first. This is because the flow from a bottle is harder for them to control and they can choke or stop breathing.
Preterm babies have a harder time maintaining the proper water balance in their bodies. These babies can become dehydrated or overhydrated.
Human milk from the baby’s own mother is the best for babies born early and at very low birth weight.
Premature babies have not been in the womb long enough to store up the nutrients they need and must usually take supplements.
Weight gain is monitored closely for all babies.
The desired weight gain depends on the baby’s size, gestational age, and health.
Premature babies do not leave the hospital until they are gaining weight steadily and in an open crib rather than an incubator. Some hospitals have a rule how much the baby must weigh before going home. In general, babies are at least 4 pounds before they are ready to come out of the incubator.
Newborn nutrition; Nutritional needs - premature infants
Poindexter B, Denne S. Nutrition and metabolism in the high-risk neonate. In: Martin RJ, Fanaroff AA, Walsh MC, eds. Fanaroff and Martin’s Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine. 9th ed. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby Elsevier; 2010:chap 35.
American Academy of Pediatrics. Nutritional needs of the preterm infant. Pediatric Nutrition Handbook. Elk Grove Village, Il; AAP; 2009, pages 79-104.
Updated by: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.
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