Breastfeeding is the ideal source of nourishment for all babies. However, some babies may be unable to feed from the breast for some reasons. In such cases, alternative feeding methods could be useful in providing expressed breast milk. Finger feeding is one of the methods to feed the baby when breastfeeding is not possible.
Finger feeding is a method to feed the baby through a feeding tube attached to the index finger of the mother or the caregiver. The tube at its other end is connected to a feeding syringe with expressed breast milk (1). Read this post to learn about when finger feeding is useful, its benefits and drawbacks, and the right way to finger-feed a baby.
When Is Finger Feeding Useful?
Finger feeding is useful whenever breastfeeding is not possible. It could be useful in the following scenarios (2).
- Baby is unable to or refuses to feed from the breast for some reason
- Mother is unable to breastfeed for some reason
- Baby has latching issues that cannot be resolved immediately
- Baby is separated from the mother at birth for a significant time
- Mother is away from the baby and leaves expressed milk with a caregiver
How To Finger Feed A Baby?
You may speak to a doctor or certified lactation consultant before initiating finger feeding. In many cases, you may still be at the hospital after delivery when trying finger feeding for the first time.
You will need the following items before you begin finger feeding.
- Adhesive medical tape
- Infant feeding syringe
- Infant feeding tube
- Feeding tube connector
There are several types of feeding syringes and tubes. Speak to a doctor before picking one. Picking a thick feeding tube may cause the baby to gag, while a thin feeding tube may make it difficult for the baby to draw the milk. Once you have all the items, follow the steps below to initiate finger feeding.
- Wash your hands thoroughly. Ensure that the feeding tube, syringe, and connector are sterile. You may sterilize them if required as per the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Pick a comfortable place and position to feed the baby. You may use a nursing pillow to support the baby during the feeding session.
- Draw expressed breast milk into the feeding tube. Use the tube connector to attach the feeding tube to the tip of the feeding syringe.
- Take the end of the feeding tube and hold it along the front of your index finger. The end of the tube should not extend beyond the tip of your finger. Tape the tube to the finger at the third or second bone of the finger.
- Press the plunger of the syringe to initiate the flow of the milk into the tube. Gently touch the baby’s lips with your fingertip. Once the baby opens the mouth, gently insert the index finger.
- Place the finger such that the pad of the finger touches the palate (roof of the mouth). Adjust the baby’s head if needed.
- Gently press the plunger so that some milk flows into the baby’s mouth. Once you feel the baby is making a sucking motion, you need not press the plunger to make the milk flow. The sucking motion will draw the milk on its own.
- Hold the syringe in your other hand, or you may take the help of another person. Position the syringe higher than the baby’s head to create adequate pressure for the milk to flow into the baby’s mouth.
- Keep a watch on the milk in the syringe. If you sense the milk is not flowing, gently press the syringe’s plunger. Push only 0.2 milliliter of milk at a time. Once the baby is able to draw the milk through the sucking motion, stop pushing the plunger.
- You may move the syringe at a level lower than the baby’s head to reduce the milk’s flow when approaching the end of the feeding session. Keep feeding until the baby stops sucking at the finger.
Once done with the feeding session, gently draw out the finger from the baby’s mouth. Discard any milk in the syringe and the tube. Rinse and clean the tube and the syringe with soapy water and leave them to air-dry.
Benefits Of Finger Feeding
- Finger feeding simulates feeding from the nipple. It may make it easier for the baby to feed from the breast nipple later and prevent nipple confusion.
- Finger feeding could make it easier for babies to exercise their sucking reflex due to the convenient shape of the finger.
- Adequate stimulation of the sucking reflex through finger feeding could make it easier to establish breastfeeding in babies with poor reflexes, such as preterm babies.
- It provides an opportunity for the mother to bond with the baby through skin-to-skin contact.
- Finger feeding could provide the mother a fine control on the milk flow. It may help prevent conditions such as gagging.
- Research indicates that babies who are finger-fed display less feeding-related stress and better weight gain. Adequate skin-to-skin contact and fine control of milk flow may be the reasons behind it.
Drawbacks Of Finger Feeding
Finger feeding may have the following disadvantages (6).
- The most common finger-feeding technique involves the use of a thin tube. However, cleaning the tube after each feed could be challenging. A poorly cleaned tube may contain bacteria, increasing the risk of infections in the baby.
- The use of an incorrect syringe, tube, and connector combination may cause the baby to receive too much or too little milk, increasing the risk of malnutrition.
You may avoid the aforementioned issues by speaking to a doctor and choosing the right supplies for finger feeding. It is also good to make a prior check on the recommended cleaning and sterilization methods recommended for the equipment.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. How long should I finger feed my baby?
You may feed a baby as long as they keep drawing milk in a single finger feeding session. The total span of finger feeding may vary among babies. You may stop finger feeding once the baby is able to latch to the breast and feed. Speak to a pediatrician to learn the ideal time to stop finger feeding your baby.
2. How does one clean the finger feeding supplies?
You may clean the feeding tube, syringe, connector, and other supplies with soapy water. Leave them to air-dry. You may check any specific instructions of the manufacturer before cleaning and sterilizing the finger feeding supplies.
Finger feeding could be an ideal way to feed expressed breast milk to a baby in situations where breastfeeding is not possible. You may take the guidance of a doctor or lactation consultant initially and finger-feed the baby by yourself eventually. Once your baby has established good feeding skills with finger feeding, you may switch to breastfeeding.
2. Finger and Cup Feeding; Canadian Breastfeeding Foundation
3. Anne Eglash, Finger Feeding Vs Syringe Feeding in the NICU; Institute for the Advancement of Breastfeeding & Lactation Education
4. Emel Buldur et al., Comparison of the Finger Feeding Method Versus Syringe Feeding Method in Supporting Sucking Skills of Preterm Babies; U.S. National Library of Medicine
5. Alternative feeding methods; NHS UK
6. Finger feeding to supplement newborns; The Fed is Best Foundation