Feeding Tube for Infants

Written by Tricia Kinman | Published on July 20, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is a Feeding Tube?

A feeding tube, also known as a gavage tube, is used to give nutrition to infants that cannot eat on their own. The gavage tube is normally used in a hospital, but it can also be used in a home to feed infants. The tube can also be used to give medication to an infant.

The feeding tube can be inserted for each feeding or can be an indwelling feeding tube. This means it remains in the infant for multiple feedings. The feeding tube can be used to administer both breast milk and formula.

When Does an Infant Need a Feeding Tube?

A feeding tube is used for infants who do not have the strength or muscle coordination to breastfeed or drink from a bottle. There are other reasons why an infant might need a feeding tube, including:

  • lack of weight gain or irregular weight gain patterns
  • absence or weak sucking ability or swallowing reflex
  • abdominal or gastrointestinal defects
  • respiratory distress
  • problems with electrolyte imbalances or elimination

What Happens During Insertion?

During the procedure, your doctor will measure the length from your baby’s nose or mouth to his or her stomach. Your doctor will then cut the tube so it is just the right length for your infant. Then, he or she will rinse the tip of the tube with sterile water to sterilize and lubricate it. Next, he or she will insert the tube very carefully into your infant’s mouth or nose.

After it is placed, your doctor will check the tube for correct placement by inserting a small amount of sterile water or formula into the tube and listen. When the tube is inserted, it is taped to the nose or mouth so it stays in place. If your infant has sensitive skin or a skin condition, your doctor may use a pectin barrier, or paste, to make sure the skin doesn’t tear when the tape is removed.

After the tube is firmly in place, the infant is given formula, breast milk, or medicine by injection with a syringe or though an infusion pump. You can hold your baby while the liquid moves slowly through the feeding tube. A warm, caring touch can soothe the infant.

After the feeding is complete, your doctor will either cap off the tube or remove it. You should make sure your infant remains upright or inclined to prevent the feeding from being regurgitated.

Are There Any Risks?

There are very few risks associated with feeding tube use. However, it can be painful for the infant, no matter how gently it is inserted. When it is painful, try using a pacifier with sucrose (sugar) to provide relief.

Other side effects include:

  • slight bleeding
  • nasal congestion
  • nasal infection

If you are feeding your baby through a feeding tube at home, it is important to watch for signs of tube misplacement. Sometimes the tube is inserted incorrectly or will accidentally become dislodged. These signs might mean there is something wrong with where the tube is placed:

  • slower heart rate
  • slow or troubled breathing
  • regurgitation or spit up

Conclusion

It can be difficult to cope with feeding your infant through a feeding tube. It is normal to feel a sense of anxiety about not breast or bottle-feeding. Make the most of the feedings by holding and rocking your infant.

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