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Key messages

  • Enteral feeds for babies in a Special Care Nursery (SCN) may be breast milk or infant formula
  • Enteral feeds may be at the breast, by orogastric or nasogastric tube, or by bottle or cup.
  • If the mother intends to breastfeed, baby’s first nutritive sucking should be at the breast wherever possible
  • Skin to skin contact has been shown to promote longer duration of breastfeeding and should be encouraged
  • If a mother chooses to feed her baby expressed breast milk (EBM) or infant formula, her choice should be supported.
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    Please note that all guidance is currently under review and some may be out of date. We recommend that you also refer to more contemporaneous evidence in the interim.

    Types of food for babies in SCN

    Breast milk

    • Breast milk has significant advantages over formula with respect to long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes. It also reduces the  risks of feed intolerance and necrotising enterocolitis.
    • It may be appropriate to delay enteral feeding until the mother’s EBM is available, including when the mother requests to withhold formula.

    Breast milk fortification

    • Breast milk can be supplemented by combining it with a commercial breast milk fortifier, considered in babies with birth weight less than 1500 g or those who were born at earlier than 30 weeks gestation, once receiving 100–150 mL/kg/day enteral feeds.
    • Human milk fortifier provides increased protein, energy and minerals for the breast milk fed preterm infant.

    Donor milk

    • When the mother’s own milk is not available, pasteurised donor milk is the next best option, particularly for unwell or high-risk infants. In Victoria, pasteurised donor milk is only available in Level 6 neonatal units.
    • Informal breast milk sharing arrangements without medical oversight are not recommended for babies in SCN. Unscreened and unpasteurised donor breast milk poses significant risks to infant health, including the transmission of harmful bacteria or communicable diseases. Parents should be educated about the potential harms of sourcing unpasteurised and untested milk for their infants, to ensure they are able to make informed decisions.

    Infant formula

    • Commercial infant formula is the only other suitable and safe alternative to ensure optimal growth and development.
    • Ready to feed infant formula that is sterile must be used instead of powdered infant formula where possible and appropriate in SCN because of the risk of bacterial sepsis (for example,  Salmonella species and Enterobacter sakazakii) from non-sterile powdered infant formula.
    • Special formulas designed for infants with gastrointestinal problems or food allergies, should only be prescribed by a medical officer for medically diagnosed conditions.
    • A preterm formula (85 kCal/100mL) may be used for infants less than 1500 grams and/or less than 30 weeks gestation and can be used from birth.

    Skin-to-skin care

    Skin-to-skin care promotes the development and maturation of infant feeding behaviours and enhances breast milk production. The close contact also triggers the enteromammary pathway by which a mother produces antibodies in response to antigens in the infant's environment.

    Encourage and facilitate early, frequent and extended skin-to-skin care (also known as 'kangaroo care': the practice of mother holding her baby skin-to-skin between her breasts). Initiation of skin-to-skin care requires individualised assessment of infant readiness, but can be safely initiated for stable infants from 28 weeks' gestation or from birth weight of 600 g.

    Methods of feeding in SCN


    The opportunity for breast contact during skin-to-skin care should be encouraged to promote bonding with the mother and longer duration of breastfeeding.

    Gastric tube

    • A dedicated enteral feeding system should be used that does not contain ports or connectors that could accidently be connected to intravenous systems. Neonates with respiratory distress or on CPAP require an orogastric tube. When introducing suck feeds, a nasal tube is preferable.

    Gastric tube sizes

    Infant weight

    Tube size

    >750g to <1500g feeding only


    >1500g feeding and/or free drainage


    Surgical cases and/or free drainage


    Long term feeding tube

    6G / 8G


    Bottle feeding

    • Bottles should not be introduced to breastfeeding infants or to infants whose mothers intend to exclusively breastfeed, unless the mother explicitly asks for them. For infants in SCN of mothers intending to breastfeed, the first nutritive sucking experiences should be at the breast. Feeding a baby from a bottle with an artificial teat may make it more difficult for the baby to learn to attach well at the breast and establish breastfeeding.
    • Bottle feeding is associated with lower temperature, lower oxygen saturation, lower transcutaneous pO2, and higher frequency of desaturations in preterm infants and infants with congenital heart disease, compared to cup feeding and breastfeeding.
    • Partial feeding of infants at 32–36 weeks’ gestational age by cup until full breastfeeding is established may be appropriate.
    • When bottle feeding very premature infants, especially those with ongoing respiratory issues, a semi elevated side-lying position may be adopted.  Studies have shown this position promotes better regulation of breathing during feeding, helping infants to maintain physiological stability.
    Figure 1: Semi elevated side lying feeding
    Figure 1: Semi elevated side lying feeding
    Figure 2: Semi elevated side lying feeding
    Figure 2: Semi elevated side lying feeding

    Enteral feeding volumes for neonates > 1500 g on full enteral feeds







    Small for gestational age (mL/kg/day)

    < 24 hours



    30- 60 ** 

    24–48 hours




    48–72 hours




    72–96 hours




    96–120 hours




    120–144 hours




    6–14 + days




    • 180 mL/kg at  doctor’s discretion

    **consideration taken for Total Fluid Intake (TFI) when oral feeds given in combination with intravenous fluids.


    • Parenteral nutrition (TPN) may need to be considered in Level 5 or 6 neonatal units or discuss with PIPER  on 1300 137 650.
    • Caution is required in grading feeding volumes for extremely growth-restricted babies (< 5th centile), those with respiratory distress or those with low Apgar scores. For these babies, consider an intravenous infusion and introduce breast milk slowly as available.

    Frequency of feeding for babies in SCN

    Enteral feeds are commenced when the infant’s respiratory status and condition has stabilised. The preference is for all feeds to be commenced as bolus feeds unless otherwise indicated and ordered by a medical officer.

    Feeding frequency



         < 1000 g

    1–2 Hourly


    1000–1500 g


    > 1500 g


    Signs of readiness to feed

    The following are signs that the infant is ready to feed:

    • rooting reflex, mouthing, swallowing saliva
    • sucking on feeding tube, fingers, dummy
    • fighting feeding tube
    • alert and looking for feed.


    • Crying is a late sign of hunger and may result in an uncoordinated sucking pattern

    Introducing enteral feeds after IVT

    • Start at 30 mL/kg/d; reduce IV infusion rate to maintain ordered and calculated total daily fluid intake.
    • Increase enteral intake as tolerated, maintaining total daily fluid intake.
    • IV infusion can usually cease when > 90 mL/kg/d enteral intake is tolerated. Thereafter enteral intake is gradually increased to 150 mL/kg/d total.

    Feed intolerance in low birth weight and premature infants

    Signs of feed intolerance can include:

    • positing
    • vomiting
    • abdominal distension
    • abdominal discolouration
    • increased  respiratory effort
    • apnoea and/or bradycardia.

    Absolute indications to withhold feeds, aspirate gastric tube and notify medical officer:

    • significant abdominal distension
    • significant abdominal discoloration
    • other suspected or diagnosed bowel pathology
    • blood in stool
    • blood or bile stained vomitus or aspirate
    • large gastric residuals or vomiting (greater than 50 per cent of 6-hour feed volume).



    Get in touch

    Centre of Clinical Excellence - Women and Children
    Safer Care Victoria

    Version history

    First published: December 2017

    Last web update: April 2019

    Review by: March 2021


    Page last updated: 17 Feb 2021

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