What is finger feeding?

I can't get my baby to latch on. A nurse in the hospital said that some parents use "finger feeding." She didn't explain this (and I didn't want to sound stupid) but I have never heard of this before. What is finger feeding?

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Kathy Kuhn

Kathy Kuhn is a registered nurse who has been working with breastfeeding families since 1981. She has been an International Board Certified... Read more

Finger feeding is a method of infant feeding that is sometimes employed in order to avoid the use of bottles and artificial nipples when supplementation is needed, especially when a baby isn’t latching to the breast. Finger feeding is used in hopes of preventing the problems that sometimes occur when a baby is exposed to artificial nipples prior to establishing effective breastfeeding.

There are however, no clinical studies that compare various alternate feeding methods, such as bottles, finger feeding or cup feeding, to establish which will offer the best support for the baby while increasing the likelihood of a smooth and quick transition to breastfeeding. Most experienced lactation consultants, working with a baby who won’t latch, will explain all the feeding options, including advantages and disadvantages. They will work with the parents to determine the feeding method that seems most beneficial in their situation.

Finger feeding can be done several ways. Usually a device specifically made for this type of feeding is used. The device has as plastic bottle-like container for the milk and very soft, fine tubing that is attached to the parent’s finger. The parent allows the baby to suck on their finger and milk is delivered through the tubing to the baby.

Since there is no clear scientific evidence on this method of feeding, most of what we know is from experience and personal opinion. Lactation consultants who employ this method feel the advantages are:

  • The finger has a more natural feel, since it is skin and not rubber or silicone.
  • The finger will “taste” like mom if she is doing the feeding.
  • The baby can be trained to suck more effectively through exercises the parents are trained to do with their finger during feedings.
  • Effective sucking patterns can be rewarded and promoted since the feeder feels the way the baby is sucking and can control the flow of milk.
  • The flow of milk can be made to mimic patterns more similar to breastfeeding.
  • Very sleepy babies can sometimes be encouraged to get adequate calories through finger feeding when other methods have failed.
  • Some finger feeding devices are also designed to allow the tubing to be used at the breast for babies who are latching, but not able to extract enough milk. This can sometimes help with the transition to the breast , because it ensures adequate milk intake when the baby is first breastfeeding after latch difficulty.

Some of the concerns about finger feeding are:

  • Babies may have difficulty switching from finger feeding to breastfeeding in the same way that they may have difficulty switching from bottles, because of the firm feel of the finger on the roof of the baby’s mouth. This is more likely if mom has flat, or retracting nipples, that will not provide the same firm stimulation that the finger does.
  • Babies do not need to open wide for finger feeding as they do for breastfeeding, and therefore may develop a pattern of feeding with the mouth narrowly flanged, which is ineffective when breastfeeding.
  • Parents may feel uncomfortable with finger feeding because it is unfamiliar.
  • Finger feeding may feel too complicated to parents, leading them to abandon breastfeeding if they get the impression their only “safe” option for supplementation when trying to breastfeed is finger feeding
  • Finger feeding is sometimes slow. Some babies may fatigue before getting enough calories, or it can take time from actually resolving the breastfeeding concerns.
  • Finger feeding done with syringes, or tubing not intended specifically for finger feeding, have a greater potential to harm the baby when used incorrectly than devices designed for this purpose

Anytime a baby is having a latch difficulty, or needs supplementation, it is important to schedule an appointment with a board certified lactation consultant. The lactation consultant can help you decide which option may best help you meet your breastfeeding goals.

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