One of the most challenging parts of caring for babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is that many of them may have trouble feeding, at least at first. But specially trained NICU nurses can assist mothers in breast- and bottlefeeding their babies. In the beginning, many premature babies can't nurse or bottlefeed and receive nutrients through an IV -- some don't know how to suck, and others suck very weakly. Plus, they tire very easily, so it may be hard for them to get a lot of food down. Lots of premature babies have digestive problems, too. As a result, they need to be fed small amounts at a time, which are carefully monitored, and they need to use special preemie-friendly bottles and nipples. Often, new mothers will need to pump their milk to use in bottles at first, so the nurses can see exactly how much a baby is taking in while in the NICU.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, November 2006. Updated 2009