What is tube feeding?

Tube Feeding
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Tube feeding: Overview

Tube feeding is a way of providing nutrition and fluids through a tube into the stomach or intestines. The tube may be inserted through the skin and into the stomach during surgery, or it may go through the mouth or nose, down the throat, and then into the stomach. Tube feeding can nourish people who have a short illness that makes swallowing difficult or people who have a severe illness, and it may prolong life.

Artificial feeding

Artificial feeding, sometimes called "tube feeding," supplies nutrition and liquids to those unable or unwilling to eat or drink. It is done by surgically inserting a tube directly into the stomach (gastrostomy) or by inserting a tube through the mouth or nose (orogastric or nasogastric [NG] tube).

Liquid nutrients may also be delivered into the bloodstream through a needle or catheter that is inserted into a vein (intravenous feeding).

Caring for Your Feeding Tube

Avoiding common problems with a feeding tube

Here are some common problems that can occur with a feeding tube and tips for avoiding them.

  • Clear a blocked tube.

    A blocked tube can happen when the tube isn't flushed or when formula or medicines are too thick.

    • Prevent blockage by flushing the tube with warm water before and after feedings and medicines.
    • If the tube is blocked, try to clear it by flushing the tube. Call your doctor if the tube won't clear.
    • Don't use a wire or anything else to try to unclog a tube. A wire can poke a hole in the tube.
  • Call your doctor right away if a tube falls out.

    Don't try to put the tube back in by yourself. The tube needs to be replaced before the opening in your belly closes. This can happen within hours.

  • Check a leaking tube.

    A tube that leaks may be blocked, or it may not fit right. After checking the tube and flushing it to make sure that the tube isn't blocked, call your doctor.

What can you expect when you have a feeding tube?

After surgery to insert a feeding tube, you’ll have a 6- to 12-inch tube coming out of your belly. The tube is about the same width as a pen.

There are different ways the tube can be used for feeding. Your doctor will help you decide which is best for you and how often feedings should occur.

A feeding syringe.

A syringe is connected to the tube. A nutritional mixture (formula) is put into the syringe and flows into the tube and your stomach. This is called bolus feeding.

A gravity bag.

Formula is placed into a special bag that is hung on a hook or a pole. The height and weight of the bag make the food flow down the tube and into your stomach.

A bag and pump.

A pump is used to push formula from a bag through the tube. This is also called continuous feeding.

What is tube feeding in children?

Tube feeding is a way to give your child nutrition, fluids, and medicines through a tube into the stomach or intestines. The tube may be placed through the skin of the belly during surgery. Or it may go into the nose, down the throat, and into the stomach.

How can you care for your child who needs tube feeding?

Your doctor will give you instructions about how to use your child's feeding tube. You'll learn what nutrition, fluids, and medicines should be fed through the tube. You will have help at home from a member of your child's care team until you feel comfortable using the tube on your own.

How do you use a feeding tube?

It’s important that the food you use for tube feeding has the right blend of nutrients for you. And the food needs to be the correct thickness so the tube doesn’t clog. For most people, a liquid formula that you can buy in a can works best for tube feeding. Your doctor or dietitian will help you find the right formula to use.

Each time you use the tube for feeding:

  • Make sure that the tube-feeding formula is at room temperature.
  • Wash your hands before you handle the tube and formula. Wash the top of the can of formula before you open it.
  • Follow your doctor’s instructions for how much formula to use for each feeding.
    • If using a feeding syringe: Connect the syringe to the tube, and put the formula into the syringe. Hold the syringe up high so the formula flows into the tube. Use the plunger on the syringe to gently push any remaining formula into the tube.
    • If using a gravity bag: Connect the bag to the tube, and add the formula to the bag. Hang the bag on a hook or pole about 18 inches above the stomach. Depending on the type of formula, the food may take a few hours to flow through the tube. Ask your doctor what you can expect and how long it should take.
    • If using a bag and pump, follow the instructions that come with the pump.
  • Flush the tube with warm water before and after feedings or before and after giving medicines through the tube. You can use a syringe to push water through the tube.
  • Sit up or keep your head up during the feeding and for 30 to 60 minutes after.
  • If you feel sick to your stomach or have stomach cramps during the feeding, slow the rate that the formula comes through the tube. Then slowly increase the rate as you can manage it.
  • Keep the formula in the refrigerator after you open it. Follow your doctor's instructions about how long formula can sit out at room temperature. Throw away any open cans of food after 24 hours, even if they have been refrigerated.
  • Talk with your doctor about changing your feedings or medicines if you are having problems with diarrhea, constipation, or vomiting.

Home tube feeding: When to call

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have signs of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness around the tube.
    • Red streaks leading from the area where the tube is inserted.
    • Pus draining from the tube area.
    • A fever.
  • The tube comes out or becomes blocked.
  • You have nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You have any problems with your feeding.

Using a feeding tube

It's important that the food you use for tube feeding has the right blend of nutrients for you. And the food needs to be the correct thickness so the tube doesn't clog. For most people, a liquid formula that you can buy in a can works best for tube feeding. Your doctor or dietitian will help you find the right formula to use.

  • Make sure that the tube-feeding formula is at room temperature.
  • Wash your hands before you handle the tube and formula.
  • Wash the top of the can of formula before you open it.
  • Follow your doctor's instructions for how much formula to use for each feeding.
    • If using a feeding syringe: Connect the syringe to the tube, and put the formula into the syringe. Hold the syringe up high so the formula flows into the tube. Use the plunger on the syringe to gently push any remaining formula into the tube.
    • If using a gravity bag: Connect the bag to the tube, and add the formula to the bag. Hang the bag on a hook or pole about 18 inches above the stomach. Depending on the type of formula, the food may take a few hours to flow through the tube. Ask your doctor what you can expect and how long it should take.
  • Flush the tube with warm water before and after feedings or before and after giving medicines through the tube. You can use a syringe to push water through the tube.
  • Sit up or keep your head up during the feeding and for 30 to 60 minutes (or as long as your doctor tells you to) afterward.
  • Keep the formula in the refrigerator after you open it.

    Follow your doctor's instructions about how long the formula can sit out at room temperature. Throw away any open cans of food after 24 hours, even if they have been refrigerated.

  • If you feel sick to your stomach or have stomach cramps during the feeding, slow the rate that the formula comes through the tube.

    Then slowly increase the rate as you can manage it.

  • Talk with your doctor about changing your feedings or medicines if you are having problems with diarrhea, constipation, or vomiting.

Why is tube feeding in children done?

Tube feeding is done when a health problem makes it hard for your child to get nutrition or gain weight by eating. Depending on your child's condition, tube feeding may be needed for only a short time. For some children, it may be needed much longer.

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