Feeding newborns can be a challenging task for many parents. While most babies will instinctively eat when hungry, some may need encouragement and assistance getting started. This raises the question of whether parents should ever force feed their newborn, especially if they seem disinterested in feeding or are not eating enough. There are arguments on both sides of this issue. Ultimately, the decision depends on the specific circumstances and should be made carefully with input from medical professionals.
When is forced feeding recommended?
In some situations, a doctor may recommend assisted or force feeding for a newborn. Common reasons include:
Preemies often have difficulty coordinating sucking, swallowing, and breathing while feeding. Tube feeding or other assisted feeding methods may be necessary to ensure they get adequate nutrition.
Low weight or failure to thrive
Newborns who are underweight or not gaining weight properly may need supplementation with expressed breastmilk or formula via syringe, cup, or tube. This helps increase calorie intake.
Babies with certain medical problems like cleft palate or neuromuscular disorders may not be able to breastfeed or bottle feed effectively. In these cases, alternative feeding methods are recommended.
Dehydration or jaundice
Infants who become dehydrated or develop jaundice often need increased feeding to recover. Short term use of feeding tubes or syringes may be prescribed.
Transition from NICU
After discharge from the NICU, former preemies may still need help transitioning to full oral feeds at home. Combining tube and bottle feeding helps bridge the gap.
Potential benefits of forced feeding
When medically advised, forced or assisted feeding offers several benefits for newborns:
Provides necessary nutrition
Tube feeding or syringe feeding lets babies get the calories they need to grow, especially if they are unable to breastfeed or bottle feed enough on their own.
Feeding through a tube or syringe ensures newborns stay hydrated, which is essential for health.
Promotes weight gain
Getting adequate nutrition supports healthy weight gain, which is crucial for development.
Allows oral skills to develop
Combining tube/syringe and bottle feeding gives babies time to learn how to coordinate sucking and swallowing at their own pace.
May be temporary
Most newborns only need short term assisted feeding before transitioning to full oral feeds.
Risks and downsides of forced feeding
While there are benefits, forced feeding also carries some risks and downsides to consider:
Stress for baby
Having a tube inserted or being fed with a syringe when not hungry can be stressful and uncomfortable for newborns.
Interferes with bonding
Feeding times are important opportunities for bonding. Assisted feeding disrupts this by taking away baby’s control.
May hamper breastfeeding
Early tube or syringe feeding could interfere with establishment of breastfeeding by altering baby’s sucking instincts.
Possibility of overfeeding
Babies may be given too much volume too quickly with assisted feeding, risking aspiration, choking, or vomiting.
Risk of infection
Improper tube placement or syringe feeding technique can introduce bacteria, causing infection.
Doesn’t address root causes
Forcing food without treating an underlying feeding problem won’t fully resolve the issue long term.
Alternatives to try first
Unless a doctor recommends otherwise, parents can try less invasive techniques before resorting to force feeding:
Kangaroo care helps regulate baby’s vitals and promotes instinct to feed.
Gently squeezing the breast during letdown can encourage an uninterested nurser.
Paced bottle feeding
Feeding slowly from the bottle lets baby control intake and mimics breastfeeding.
Switching feeding positions
Trying different holds like laid-back or side-lying nursing can make eating easier.
Massaging the jaw or cheek
Stroking baby’s face lightly can stimulate rooting and sucking reflexes.
Pumping and spoon-feeding
Spoon-feeding a few mLs of expressed milk lets baby taste without needing to suck.
When to seek medical guidance
Parents should contact baby’s doctor right away if:
Baby is struggling to latch
Difficulty latching may indicate an underlying condition needing treatment.
Weight gain is inadequate
Not gaining enough ounce per day may be a sign of problems like dehydration or failure to thrive.
There are fewer than 8 wet diapers a day
Inadequate wet diapers suggest baby isn’t getting enough nutrition and fluids.
Jaundice in the first weeks often requires increased feeding to clear bilirubin.
Baby seems extremely fussy at the breast or bottle
Fussing or refusal to eat could mean feeding is uncomfortable due to issues like reflux.
While the idea of forcing a newborn to eat may seem unnatural or harsh to some parents, there are medical circumstances when assisted or tube feeding is truly needed to protect a baby’s health and development. This decision should always be made under the guidance of a pediatrician or lactation consultant based on each infant’s unique situation. Whenever possible, less invasive feeding techniques should be attempted first. But if supplementation is prescribed, parents can feel reassured they are doing what’s best for their little one’s wellbeing. With patience and care, forced feeding is usually a very temporary measure on the path to getting baby eating fully on their own.