Feeding tubes

How do feeding tubes work?

Feeding tubes are used for children who cannot take nutrition by mouth. They may be premature babies or children who are sick or have feeding challenges. The tubes are thin and are inserted through the mouth or nose, delivering milk to the stomach without any effort from the baby. The tubes are a gentle way to feed the baby and a caregiver can control the amount of milk. The baby doesn't need to suck or be awake. On the other hand, there are risks with tube insertion.  Some babies benefit from sucking on a breast or pacifier while being fed by the tube.

A) Describing feeding tubes

Feeding tubes are used for babies and other children who cannot take nutrition by mouth. These children include:

  • Premature babies
  • Children with medical feeding challenges
  • Sick children

Feeding tubes are thin and can be inserted through the mouth (orogastric tubes) or the nose (nasogastric). They deliver milk to the stomach without any effort from the baby.

Feeding tubes are frequently used in hospital. Babies who require a feeding tube after leaving hospital are followed closely by their health-care providers. Some babies with long-term feeding challenges have surgery to create a passage into their stomach through the skin of the tummy. A feeding tube is then placed directly into the stomach (gastrostomy tube  or G-tube).

B) Pros of feeding tubes

Feeding tubes are agentle way to feed a baby without needing the baby to suck or be awake.

The caregiver very accurately controls the amount of milk the baby gets.

C) Cons of feeding tubes

There are risks with insertion and the tube can end up in the baby’s breathing tube or lungs.

The baby will have difficulty breastfeeding if the tube is in the baby’s mouth.

Overfeeding can keep the baby from getting hungry and can delay establishing breastfeeding.

D) Method

A trained health-care provider inserts the tube. Milk is allowed to flow by gravity from a syringe or is pushed from a syringe by a machine (syringe infusion pump; enteral feeding pumps) down the tube. The latter gives much more control over the rate of milk flow and have been reported as safer. Please discuss any questions with your health-care providers and practices can vary. 

Babies benefit from sucking on a breast while being fed by tube. Others may be given pacifiers.