Feeding your premature baby

Your premature baby's diet will be carefully balanced to suit their tiny digestive system while meeting the needs of their growing body.

What kind of nutrition does my premature baby need?

When your baby is first born, the healthcare team may give them fluids and nutrition through an intravenous (IV line) if they are extremely premature or have breathing difficulties. Alternatively, the doctors may decide that they are mature enough to take milk through a small tube that is passed through the nose into the stomach. Breast milk is the best choice for your baby. If you are making milk and your baby is strong enough to suckle, you will be encouraged to breastfeed. If your baby is not ready yet to latch on, you can express milk and this will be fed to your baby through a tube.

Don’t worry or feel guilty if you are not producing milk. Be patient, try expressing 3-hourly, and look after yourself with plenty of food, drink and rest, and the milk is likely to arrive.

If it doesn’t or if your baby is ready to progress with feeds before your milk supply isn’t fully established then the team may talk with you about the possibility of using donated human breast milk or formula feed, until your supply is sufficient. You can feed donor breast milk or formula to them through a bottle if they are strong enough, or through a tube. 

Introducing milk feeds

It is important for milk feeds to be introduced in a timely way - not too quickly but not too slowly - and your team will have the expertise to decide this. This progression must be very gradual because premature babies - especially those born at 34 weeks or less - are slow to cope with milk that goes into their stomachs and have more problems with absorbing nutrients.

Supplements/supplementary formula for premature babies

Babies who are born early miss out on a lot of the nutrition that term babies receive during the final weeks of pregnancy, including key vitamins and minerals that are important to help them grow and become strong.

Breast milk is best for your baby, but they may also need extra vitamins and minerals for growth, so many premature babies are given supplements. There are also formula milks specially designed for premature babies to ensure they get all the nutrients they need.

How will my baby feed if she is too weak to breastfeed?

  • Through an IV line. A baby who is born very prematurely will initially be fed through an IV line - a thin tube that goes directly into a vein. This carries the nutrients they need directly into their blood supply, so that their digestive system does not have to process them. This may last anything from a few hours after birth to days, weeks or longer, depending on how premature they are and whether they have any digestive problems. The team can give a sugar and salt solution in this way, or may give a nutrient rich solution called TPN (total parenteral nutrition), which contains the nutrients a baby needs to grow. This decision will depend your baby’s birth weight and how long they think it will take to establish milk feeds.

  • Through a tube. Even if your baby is able to digest milk, they will not be mature enough to co-ordinate sucking, swallowing and breathing until about 32-34 weeks, so until then they will need to be fed through a tube. The tube, which is very fine and soft, goes into their stomach - either through the nose and down to the back of the throat (a nasogastric tube) or through the mouth (an orogastric tube). Your baby may continue tube feeding while they are learning to breast, cup or bottle feed, to make sure they get enough food.

Weight gain and growth

Putting on weight is essential in order for your premature baby to grow and develop. A key goal of your baby's health carers is to optimise your baby's nutrition and growth. An important way for the healthcare team to assess your baby's progress is to measure weight gain. Premature babies have more difficulty gaining weight because they use the available calories for healing as well as growing .

The healthcare team will monitor your baby's weight very carefully. If they are not gaining weight as expected, they will adjust the nutrition accordingly.

Breastfeeding your premature baby

Giving birth prematurely does not prevent you from making milk for your baby. The extra stress, fear, discomfort and fatigue that go along with the birth of a premature baby can cause a slow start with milk production, but with patience and support you can express and breastfeed successfully. Breastfeeding your premature baby will boost their health and will help you develop a bond with them.

Why breast milk is best for premature babies

Health professionals generally advise women to breastfeed if they can. Breast milk has many health benefits for premature babies, and is recommended by neonatologists (doctors specialising in new-born babies) wherever possible.

Even if it doesn't appeal to you, it's important to try because of the health benefits for your baby. Even just a few drops at a time will do them good.

If you are using a caring technique called kangaroo care (holding the baby skin to skin to your chest) this can really help to start breastfeeding when your baby is ready.

The benefits of breastfeeding:

  • It's good for your preterm baby. Breastfeeding will help to build your baby's health and strength as well as protecting them from viruses and bacteria, which can cause infection. Your milk provides antibodies and other substances that help your baby's immature gut and immune system. Breast milk is easier for a small baby to digest than baby formula. Preterm babies are particularly vulnerable to necrotizing enterocolitis, so you will be encouraged to breastfeed or express your milk.
  • It helps you bond with your premature baby. Once your preterm baby is able to feed directly from the breast, you will also get regular skin-to-skin contact with them.

Starting to breastfeed

When you start breastfeeding or expressing, you will only get a very small amount of milk. Do not be discouraged. With patience you will be able to build this up.

When your baby starts feeding directly from your breast - often from around 32 weeks - they will not take much milk at first, so they will need supplements.

Many women succeed in combining breastfeeding with tube, cup or bottle feeding, using milk that they have expressed (or donor milk / formula milk if needs be) so it shouldn't cause problems if you can't be there for every feed.

Practising sucking can help you breastfeed

If you were unwell after your baby's birth, your milk supply may have dried up, but many women get it going again by cuddling their baby and encouraging them to 'practise suck' on their nipples.

Babies can suck from around 28 weeks, and they often find sucking soothing - whether on a dummy, your nipple, or the tip of your little finger. This will also help your baby to prepare for feeding through their mouth, and there is evidence that it can help reduce the length of time they spend in hospital.

When there is a problem with breastfeeding

Not everyone finds breastfeeding easy. Some babies - and mothers - take to breastfeeding straight away, while for others the experience of expressing or getting the baby to latch on (attach) to the nipple becomes a real struggle.

If breastfeeding or expressing isn't going well for you, it's very important that you seek advice as soon as possible to help. A sympathetic breastfeeding adviser should be able to help you work out what's going wrong and provide practical solutions, either in person or by phone or email. Many hospitals have excellent breast feeding support staff who are there to help you overcome practical difficulties you may experience.

If you're struggling with breastfeeding, ring one of these helplines for support and information:

Expressing milk for your premature baby

If your baby was very tiny or is unwell, they may not be able to go on the breast immediately. In this case, the hospital staff will help you start expressing milk.

When to start expressing

To express milk for your baby, it is best to start hand expressing as soon as possible after giving birth, ideally within six hours of delivering your baby. You'll need to express frequently - around eight to ten times a day, including once during the night. This will help build up your milk supply for your baby. Once lactation is established, i.e milk is flowing, you might find it easier to use a hand held or electric pump – your nurse will advise you on the best time to try these methods.

In the first few days after giving birth, mothers may make just drops of milk each time you use the breast pump so it is easy to get discouraged, but remember that these drops are very valuable to your baby's health. A baby's stomach is very small, so they will need very small amounts regularly. The amount of breast milk you produce will grow slowly, so be patient and don't assume you are not able to produce enough milk.

Colostrum is the perfect first milk for your premature baby

Initially you will only produce a few drops of colostrum - a sticky substance that is especially rich in nutrients - but once your milk comes in, a couple of days after the birth, the amount will increase.

How to express breastmilk

  • You can express your milk using a hand pump, an electric pump or your hand to gently squeeze the milk out. (It's easiest to use your hand during the first few days to extract the colostrum.)
  • You can rent 'hospital grade' breast pumps by the week or month. They are more effective than those that you buy on the high street and allow you to pump both breasts at the same time.
  • You can bring expressed milk into the unit, and keep it in the fridge or freeze it for later use.
  • You and the healthcare team can use your milk instead of, or as well as, your baby's other feeds.

Storing your expressed milk

You can store breast milk that has been expressed into a sterile container:

  • in the fridge for up to five days at 4°C or lower
  • for two weeks in the ice compartment of a fridge
  • for up to six months in a freezer

When you remove milk from the freezer you can store it in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours.

Your hospital will let you know how they will store your expressed breast milk and how they would like it labelled and packed.


Cup feeding your premature baby

Cup feeding is less common than bottle feeding, and is not offered in all units. Cup feeding can be done with expressed breast milk or formula, or a combination of both.

How to cup feed your premature baby

Cuddle your baby in an upright position and hold the rim of the feeding cup against her lips. With practice, gradually she will learn to lap the milk.

Bottle feeding your premature baby

If you bottle feed, the team will prescribe a special preterm formula. Most babies will have moved on to full-term formula or breastfeeding by the time they are discharged.

How to bottle feed your premature baby

Before you begin to bottle feed, get yourself and your baby into a comfortable position, with the baby held close to you. Normally, if you touch the baby's mouth with the teat, their mouth will open and they will begin to suck.

Babies often fall asleep during their feeds. If this happens, try gently stroking their feet or hands, or take a break to change their nappy, as this may help wake them up.

Change sides when feeding

With breastfeeding you naturally move your baby from left to right to feed from both breasts. Try and remember to do the same with bottle feeding as it will help your baby's physical development.

Breastfeeding and expressing helplines

If you're struggling with expressing, ring one of these breastfeeding helplines for support and information:

To hire hospital grade breastpumps

Other breastfeeding support

The baby unit

Caring for your baby

  • Mother holding baby to her chest.

    Kangaroo care

    Skin-to-skin contact with your premature baby is a wonderful way for you both to bond. It also provides health benefits.

  • Mother holding premature baby.

    Caring for your baby: your role

    You will play an important part in your premature baby's care, even while they are in the NICU.

  • Premature baby in incubator.

    Positioning your premature baby

    Positioning your premature baby correctly can make them feel secure, improve their breathing ability, strengthen their muscles and reduce the risk of cot death.

Treatment and medical support your baby may have


  1. Macdonald S and Magill-Cuerden J (2012) Mayes’ Midwifery, Fourteenth Edition, Edinburgh: Bailliere Tindall Elsevier.
  2. London Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Foundation Trust (Accessed Oct 2016) Enteral Nutrition for the Preterm Infanthttp://www.gosh.nhs.uk/health-professionals/clinical-guidelines/nutritio...
  3. J Pinelli and A Symington (2005) Non-Nutritive Sucking for Promoting Physiologic Stability and Nutrition in Preterm Infants, The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, no 4.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  (accessed Oct 2016) Breastfeeding: Recommendations: Handling Breastmilkhttp://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/recommendations/handling_breastmilk.htm
  5. London National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (2008) Maternal and Child Nutritionhttps://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/PH11
Hide details

    Last reviewed on October 5th, 2017. Next review date October 5th, 2020.

    Was this information useful?

    Yes No


    Please note that these comments are monitored but not answered by Tommy’s. Please call your GP or maternity unit if you have concerns about your health or your baby’s health.
    • By Uche kevin (not verified) on 30 Aug 2019 - 18:15

      My son was born at 29 weeks and 4 day, he is currently in incubator today making it 18 days but am worried that he has not started feeding and he is losing wait

    • By Veena (not verified) on 31 May 2019 - 11:18

      My daughter was born at 29weeks 3 days and now 37 weeks 2 days. She was in NICU for 19 days and 15 days in ward and on 12 complete spoon feed 25ml each feed, she was discharged from hospital. But the next day she was not feeding more than 5ml and her face color was changed to blue and we rushed to hospital and got admitted again in NICU. They have done a lumbar puncture test and understood there is brain infection and 14days injection was given (meropenum and amicacin) and clarithromycin tab. Then again started to try spoon feed but she is not taking more than 15 to 20ml. Earlier i was giving my breastmilk expressed. I was getting more than 500ml per day. But now when she was admitted again my breast milk drastically changed. Not getting more than 10ml per day.
      As she was not feeding via spoon we got discharged with OG feed. Now i am feeding through tube and keep trying to spoon feed.
      Would you able to suggest any ways to increase my milk supply and tricks to make her feed complete feed. As my breastmilk is not there we have started giving prenan after doctors advise.

    • By shenila (not verified) on 17 Apr 2019 - 12:00

      My baby was 34 week born ..he is brething problm ....doc sayes my baby admit 3 or 4 dayes in hosptl .i see he is normal ....plzz tell me 34 week bay can survive ?

    • By MASHAKU KELETSO (not verified) on 16 May 2019 - 00:59

      YES the baby will survive, I think we are in the same situation my baby now is 3 months old and she's healthy as long as you follow the rules your baby will survive, feed your baby when ever she wants to and don't let a baby sleep the whole day with empty stomach, wake her up every 2 hours and feed her and don't forget to do kangaroo mother care it's very important

    • By MASHAKU KELETSO (not verified) on 16 May 2019 - 01:02

      Don't introduce the baby solid food unti
      She turned 6 months

    • By Susie (not verified) on 24 May 2019 - 11:39

      Don't worry my baby was born 30 weeks and he is doing just fine.

    • By Susil (not verified) on 8 Feb 2019 - 15:29

      My baby is feeding problem plz help me

    • By Medard (not verified) on 21 Sep 2018 - 01:35

      My baby was born at 26 weeks and 3days
      We have spent two weeks in the hospital and we have started feeding her through a small tube. Now when will she start suckling the breast,?

    • By Midwife @Tommys on 21 Sep 2018 - 11:05

      Hi Medard, We hope your new baby is doing well, great news that you are now able to feed her yourself through a tube. Many babies begin to have a suck reflex around 34 weeks, some will be before this and some will be after. Have a chat with your neonatal nurses about expectations. I am sure that they are encouraging you to express your milk as this is the best start for your daughter. With best wishes to her and to you from Tommy's midwives

    • By Anonymous (not verified) on 13 Jun 2018 - 14:57

      Hi my baby was born early 30 weeks..weight was 975 grms she is continuously gaining weight and now after 3 month she is gaining 2.270 kg..is that normal weight gaining but she looks very thin and small...

    • By Midwife @Tommys on 15 Jun 2018 - 13:14

      Your baby's weight should have been plotted on a growth charted at the back of their red child health book, this will show the pattern of growth and if it is tracking on a centile. If you are worried about your baby's growth then I would suggest to make contact with your health visitor for advice and a review.
      Best wishes
      Tommy's midwife

    • By Elizabeth (not verified) on 17 Jan 2018 - 09:56

      My baby was born in 27weeks 7days, and we spent 2month 3days in hospital.
      she is taken 25ml of milk before but now, she has reduced the intake to 15ml.
      please, am worried.

    • By Midwife @Tommys on 17 Jan 2018 - 14:50

      Hi Elizabeth. It is best to ask your daughters NICU team about this as they know her full medical history and current condition- they will have far more info than we will from your msg above, about why this may be happening. If you are no longer in touch with the NICU team, you could ask your Health visitor/GP. Please take good care of yourself.
      Sophie,Tommy's Midwife

    • By Jay (not verified) on 17 Oct 2017 - 01:36

      My baby was born at 30 weeks he was in NICU for 2 weeks. He as being home with for for the past two weeks, he is now one month old. While he was in the NICU i would normally express milk and take it to him, however I was sick for three days there I had stop expressing. The Friday when I got my son, I was breastfeeding and thinking that everything was okay, he was getting enough. However, the Saturday I realize that he requesting milk every fifteen to half hour I taught this was normal cause i'm a first time mother. Therefore I decided to express, while expressing I realize that nothing was coming out. I had to rush to the store in the middle of the night and get emfamil infant then I learnt that there was emfamil premature so I bought that one the following day. I give him one once every 2 hours but he tends to cry for more so I increase it to ounce and a half in which he was satisfied with that. Sometimes he drink it all off, something he doesn't. Problem is that wake's almost every 1 hours and crying down the place for food. I'm wondering am I feeding him too often or what? Also can this cause a problem or seeing that he is taking so much is formula or his body is able to accept it well. However he is taking it well. Am I able to give hi water seeing that he is being formula fed?

      Another problem is that i'm seeing some tiny bumps on his skin. There are white and really tiny. Is it a case that is how he is changing skin?

      Last but not least.... Is their nervous system fully developed?

    • By Midwife @Tommys on 17 Oct 2017 - 09:42

      Hi Jay,

      Congratulations on the birth of your Son. I am not able to give you a detailed care plan of how to feed your little boy as you need to have a sit down with your Paediatrician or a Lactation Consultant.
      Are you still breastfeeding him or is it now just formula? He is waking regularly but this might not be just for food but for comfort and cuddles. He doesn't need additional water with the formula but the calories of the feed to put on weight and grow.
      Can you contact the Emfamil Infant Help Centre online for more information?
      The tiny bumps that you see on his skin could be due to your hormones still present in your baby's system. The tiny bumps and white pustules should resolve without treatment but please get this checked when you make a feeding plan just to put your mind at rest.
      All babies are born with an immature nervous system which matures as they grow and and meet their milestones eg rolling over, sitting up unaided, crawling, walking.
      As your little one was born prematurely their development may be age adjusted. Here are some useful links below:

      I hope this helps and wish you and your family lots of happiness

      Anna-Tommy's Midwife

    • By Anonymous (not verified) on 29 Sep 2017 - 13:59

      My baby was born 27 week 3days.waight 1kilo 15 gram at born.29 days spend Bankura madical collage and hospital at s.n.c.u
      Now waight 810 gram
      But he do not suck brest milk.when he suck brestmilk.pls any one ans me

    • By Midwife @Tommys on 2 Oct 2017 - 12:03

      So sorry that your baby is not putting on weight and really sorry that I can't advise you without knowing the situation. Please speak to the doctors in the hospital for help. And take care of yourself at this difficult time. Best wishes from the midwives at Tommy's x

    • By Anonymous (not verified) on 14 Sep 2017 - 13:35

      He spend on 14 days sncu.after 5 days oxcigen.now he did not suck brest milk.when he suck brest milk.pls ans me.

    • By Midwife @Tommys on 14 Sep 2017 - 15:46

      Hi, Thank you for your comment.
      When babies are born early, the ability to suck can be delayed until they get a bit bigger and also feeding for themselves can get very tiring, so breastfeeding can take a little while to establish. There are ways in which you can increase your milk production and help baby to become familiar with being at the breast. Your midwife or SCBU nurse should be able to offer you this support while you are in hospital. Having skin to skin with baby when possible is a great way of helping bonding and attachment, it gives baby the chance to be close to the breast and know that it is there, it also will help to regulate the temperature and breathing. You can also try some hand expression, where expressing milk from the breast into either a syringe or a cup so that this can be stored in the fridge until baby can tolerate milk feeds. This will also help with establishing milk supply and eventually you will be able to express milk with the breast pump. It is difficult to say when your baby will start to suck because this can be different for every premature baby but if you ask the nurses looking after your baby then they will be able to give you further advice on what to expect over the coming days. Hope this helps, take care, Tommy's Midwives x

    • By Hanna (not verified) on 1 Aug 2017 - 01:34

      Hi my baby was born 24plus 6 days. She is in nicu she has started to have my milk at .4and .6 ml 2 hourly and now hourly. She is digesting well. However, I had a cesarean and it's infected. I am having so many antibiotics which I have been told won't harm baby. I was expressing a really good amount of milk daily. I have been unwell for three days and was unable to express. Now my milk has moved from 90 ml to about 14 ml this is though I'm trying to express again every three hours . Please advise as I am also eating and drinking fairly well.

    • By Midwife @Tommys on 1 Aug 2017 - 13:03

      Dear Hanna,
      What a traumatic time you have been having. How is your little baby doing and how are you feeling now after having the wound infection? The doctors will have prescribed antibiotics that are safe for your baby but the reason for your decreased supply will mostly be due to you being unable to express as you were too poorly for 3 days.
      I assume that you are still an inpatient in hospital? Are you able to get some support from the breastfeeding specialists there? Are you managing to get enough milk expressing 3 hourly to cover your baby's feeds at the moment? I f not, is there donor milk available on the unit while you build your supply back up? If not look at this link regarding donor milk
      Dr Jack Newman has a great website with videos and information
      There are also many charities that can offer practical support
      You can also download our free app
      Your supply will gradually improve but please be kind to yourself and ensure that you have a good pump. Medela UK produce a range of breast pumps, including hospital grade pumps for hire.
      Call them on 0161 776 0400. Alternatively you may choose to buy one
      Three hourly expressing sounds like a good plan for now. Rest as much as you can in between expressing not only are you recovering from birth Hanna but the infection and the massive adjustment from becoming a Mum earlier than you anticipated. It is beyond stressful and you are doing so much for your Daughter by expressing for her. If we can be of any support to you please call us weekdays 9-5 pm on 0800 0147 800 or email us at [email protected]
      Congratulations on your baby girl. Have you decided on a name yet?
      With love and best wishes I am thinking of you both
      Anna- Tommy's Midwife

    • By Anonymous (not verified) on 21 May 2017 - 04:31

      hi my baby is born in 7th month and now he is 16 day old. the problem is his mother milk is not available, please suggest me what formula milk i used for baby, baby weight is 1.8kg,

    • By Midwife @Tommys on 22 May 2017 - 10:11

      Hello and congratulations on the birth. Is your baby home from hospital yet? What feeding method has been used so far? I would be reluctant to advise any particular formula. Your baby is very small still and it would most probably be best to continue with the feeding pattern already in place. If you are unsure please contact your midwife or health visitor for individual advice based on your own baby's needs. Best wishes x

    • By Anonymous (not verified) on 19 Apr 2017 - 21:23

      Hi my baby was born at 7months and now it's been five months from the time she was born but the problem is she has a slow weight gain in that she hasn't yet reached two mgs. I have tried supplementing nutri start with breast milk but it seems no results yielding yet. What advice do you give me.

    • By Midwife @Tommys on 20 Apr 2017 - 09:31

      Hi, I would advise that you arrange to see a health professional for full assessment of your child's health. In the UK that would be a health visitor or a GP. There can be numerous reasons for your child's slow weight gain and it really would be best to look into the causes rather than just to give supplements. Best wishes from Tommy's midwives.

    • By SusieCreel (not verified) on 11 Apr 2017 - 11:25

      Hi, thank you for your post.
      My son was born 5 weeks early. However, its weight is still pretty good, about 2.3kg. But another problem is that when he was born, i did not have enough milk for him. I had to use powdered milk for baby a lot. So up till now, he has been 14 months old, his health is not very good. In In addition to use powdered milk, i’m current ly using some functional foods to help improving her immunity like immukid http://immukid.vn/. I’m not sure if this is a viable option, i need advices from you guys.
      Thank you !!

    • By Midwife @Tommys on 11 Apr 2017 - 12:42

      I am unsure about the exact product that you have provided a link for as I am unable to find any information in English therefore I do not know what the product contains. However generally we would advise for your child to have a balanced diet which is varied with plenty of fruits and vegetables. Supplements are only given if advised by a health professional, we are unable to advise on this as we do not have your child's health information. If you have concerns that your child is unwell or not healthy then we would advise to speak to your health visitor or GP for a review and advice.

    • By Midwife @Tommys on 30 Jan 2017 - 09:53

      Hi there.
      I would suggest that if he is jaundiced (yellow) and vomiting very regularly(yellow in colour), as well as his weight loss and lethargy, then i would urge you to take him into the hospital as soon as possible today! He needs to be reviewed by a Neonatal/Paed doctor to ensure that his jaundice is not getting worse and causing these symptoms. Jaundice is a very serious condition and that needs to be kept a very close eye on.
      If you are in doubt as to where your neonatal/paed wards are, please take him to children's a&e as soon as possible for review!!

    • By Refilwe (not verified) on 28 Jan 2017 - 19:05

      I gave birth on the 12th of this month and my baby is a premature, 34weeks early. His birth weight was 2.4kg then i was discharged on the third day then when i went to the clinic after 3days his weight was still 2.4kg.. i was a bit worried but they said i shouldnt be worried! 5 days later i discovered that his eyes were yellow but now they are getting better so now my problem is he doesnt eat as much as he used to and he is a bit weak and today he vomited yellowish vomit.. so um very worried. What do u suggest i do? please help

    Add new comment