Early Oral Stimulation for Premature Babies

It’s common knowledge that one way to comfort a baby is to give a pacifier. What you may not know is that in premature babies, the act of sucking sometimes doesn’t come naturally. It’s often necessary to teach this important milestone in premature babies, for more reasons than just comfort. Early oral stimulation is a developmental therapy used for babies in our Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).  Skin-to-skin care, or Kangaroo care, is the first form of early oral stimulation that infants receive.  This type of care entails placing baby directly on Mom or Dad’s chest and covering them with a blanket.  This can begin at 3 days of life.  Skin to skin care stimulates the sense of touch and smell.

Beginning at 28 weeks corrected gestational age, an infant can be provided with a pacifier dipped in milk or formula two times a day.  This is done immediately before, during or after cares, and while being fed through a tube into the stomach.  When infants first start this therapy they suck on the pacifier briefly.  After a few weeks they are able to take longer sucking bursts.  It slowly trains them to suck and associate the taste of breast milk or formula with the sensation of a full stomach.

Non-nutritive breast feeding (Mom pumps prior to placing baby to breast) is another very valuable oral stimulation tool that we use as soon as a baby is able to tolerate it to promote successful direct breast feeding.
Research has shown that early oral stimulation increases time in alert states, and decreases time in restless states.  It also helps preterm infants transition from tube feedings to full bottle feedings sooner; which means an earlier discharge to home.

Beth Martin, RN
Beth Martin RNC, MSN, graduated from Otterbein College with a BSN and completed my MSN in 2010. She has worked at Nationwide Children’s in the NICU since 1996. In 2004, a multidisciplinary group developed the Small Baby guidelines. The guidelines outline the care of <27 week preemies from the time of admission to discharge. We have presented Small Baby data and outcomes all over the United States. Our outcomes have improved; decreased length of stay, mortality and morbidity rates, and ventilator days. She is also a mom to two beautiful boys, ages 6 1/2 and 3, who keep her very busy! She love spending time with family, camping, swimming and watching kids movies!

One thought on “Early Oral Stimulation for Premature Babies

  1. Mat Beecher on said:

    What about Mom and Dad’s who don’t want to bottle feed? We want to give our children the best opportunity to breast feed and have heard pacifiers and bottle feeding can cause nipple confusion. We don’t want to switch them to bottle feeding so they can go home sooner, we want to keep them in protective care until they learn to eat from their mother’s breast. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

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