Finger feeding

How does finger feeding work?

With finger feeding, milk is injected through a syringe into the baby’s mouth while the baby sucks both on the finger and on the tip of the syringe. It’s useful for babies with a sucking problem or babies who are weak or sleepy. The disadvantages are that it requires good technique with a sharp syringe and a small finger. It won’t work if the baby gags on the finger. With a clean syringe and clean hands and the baby in a baby seat in front of the caregiver, the baby is offered the finger and should start to suck calmly. The syringe tip is then placed alongside the finger, inside the baby's mouth. A bit of milk is injected as the baby sucks until the syringe is empty or the baby is done feeding. The syringe may need to be refilled several times during the feed, and needs to be thoroughly cleaned after each feed. The syringe will get sticky within a few days and need to be replaced.

A) Describing finger feeding

A baby finger feeding.

Finger feeding is a tool for giving milk supplements to babies. It uses a curved-tip syringe with a sharp point that provides milk as the baby is sucking on a finger.

B) Pros of finger feeding

Finger feeding is useful for babies:

  • With a sucking problem.
  • Who are weak or sleepy.
  • Who cannot use other methods.

One study (Buldur 2021) of hospitalized premature babies reported that those who were finger-fed showed fewer signs of stress, were able to breastfeed sooner, and left hospital earlier than those who were given bottles.

C) Cons of finger feeding

The disadvantages are that:

  • Good technique is important to avoid scratching the roof of the baby’s mouth (palate) or gums.
  • Parents need to obtain the syringe.  
  • The method can’t be used if the baby gags on the caregiver's finger.
  • The small size of syringe means frequent refills are needed.
  • The syringe can become contaminated if not cleaned properly.
  • Some caregivers are not comfortable with syringe feeding.

D) Equipment

A 12 cc curved-tip syringe.

A 12-cc (12 ml [1/3-oz]) curved-tip syringe is ideal. These are often used by dentists. The tip is not too wide to interfere with the baby’s latching and sucking yet it contains a reasonable amount of milk.

The tip or body of a regular syringe may be too wide, preventing the baby from latching, but other syringes may hold very little milk (1 millilitre or 1/30 U.S. fluid ounce, for example).

E) How to finger feed

Before the first use and after every use, the syringe should be washed. To do this:

  1. Pull the plunger out of the syringe.
  2. Take the black cap off the plunger.
  3. Wash all three pieces with hot, soapy water.

To feed by syringe:

  1. Wash your hands well.
  2. Place the milk in a reservoir. 
  3. Fill the syringe with milk from the reservoir.
  4. Place the baby in a baby chair or car seat in front of you on a low table. The baby’s body should be half-way between sitting upright and lying down (a 45-degree angle).
  5. Gently let the baby suck on your index (pointer) finger. If you have larger fingers, try your ring or pinky finger.
  6. Once the baby is sucking calmly, place the syringe tip along side your finger, inside the baby’s mouth.  
  7. You need to feel the tip of the syringe next to your finger at all times to prevent injury to the baby.
  8. Inject a small amount of milk as the baby sucks.
  9. If the baby is not sucking, don’t inject.
  10. If the milk sprays back at you, you need to move the tip of the syringe farther into the baby’s mouth.
  11. Once the syringe is empty, while leaving your finger in the baby's mouth, remove the syringe, refill, and continue as above until the baby no longer shows hunger signs.
  12. Remove your finger from the baby's mouth.
  13. Syringe feeds should not take more than 30 minutes.

It is easy to knock over the milk reservoir as you are refilling the syringe with one hand. It may help to place the milk in a cup with a broad base or in a second container.

Once you are done, you need to thoroughly clean the syringe. The syringes usually get sticky and need to be replaced after a few days.

Some parents use droppers instead of syringes. The squeezable part of the dropper may become contaminated with milk and needs to be carefully washed after each use.

Some mothers use a syringe with a sharp tip to replace the tube-at-the-breast system. This can be a bit cumbersome if the mother does not have a helper, as only one of the mother’s hands is available to hold the baby at the breast as the other needs to hold the syringe. This can also increase the risk of injury to the child.

References

Buldur E, Yalcin Baltaci N, et al. Comparison of the Finger Feeding Method Versus Syringe Feeding Method in Supporting Sucking Skills of Preterm Babies. Breastfeed Med. 2020 Nov;15(11):703-708