Enteral feeding, or tube feeding, is a way to deliver nutrients through a tube if you cannot take food or drink through your mouth. In some cases, you may only need tube feeding for a short period of time during your hospital stay. In other cases, you may need to go home with the tube in place and continue to receive nutrition this way. It may be temporary or permanent.
Depending on your condition, you may have a tube that leads from the:
Tube feeding provides you with proper nutrition when a condition makes it difficult, unsafe, or impossible to take food in through your mouth. Fluids and medications can also be given through the tube.
Possible complications of tube feeding include:
If you have gastroesophageal reflux, you may be at increased risk for vomiting or aspirating.
If you are in the hospital or at a clinic, before the feeding, the staff will:
Tube feedings may be delivered by several methods. Depending on your condition, a nurse, trained caregiver, or family member may deliver the tube feeding. If you are able, you may receive training on how to give yourself the feedings.
The feeding tube will be clamped or kinked. A large syringe will be attached to it. The formula will be poured slowly into the syringe. The tube will then be unclamped, and the syringe will be held high. This allows gravity to move the formula through the tube. When the feeding is done, the tube will be flushed with water to prevent clogging. The tube will then be clamped again, and the syringe will be removed. The tube will be recapped and taped to the body. If the syringe method is used, you will need several feedings throughout the day. These are called bolus feedings.
First, the formula will be poured into the feeding bag. The bag will be hung on a pole. The tube from the bag will be connected to the clamped feeding tube. When the 2 tubes are connected, the feeding tube will be unclamped, allowing the formula to flow. As with the syringe method, gravity will move the formula through the tube. The flow can also be adjusted using a regulator clamp. When the feeding is done, a syringe filled with water will be used to flush the tube. Lastly, the tube will be capped and taped to your body. You will have several feedings during the day.
These steps are similar to the gravity-drip method. The difference is that the tubes are connected to an electronic pump. The pump will be programmed to deliver the formula at a set rate per hour. For example, with continuous feeding, you will slowly be fed throughout the day. If you need this approach, the feeding will be stopped every 4 hours. The tube will be flushed with water so that it does not get clogged. The pump method can also be used for bolus feedings.
Getting nutrition through a tube is not painful. You may have an upset stomach. To help prevent this:
After the tube feeding, the following steps will be taken by you or a caregiver:
Remember that you still need to take care of your mouth and teeth. Brush your teeth twice a day, or as advised by your doctor.
If you have tube feeding at home, you will be instructed to call your doctor right away if you have:
Family Caregiver Alliance
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
Canadian Caregiver Coalition
Enteral feeding: an overview. Dietetics website. Available at: http://www.dietetics.co.uk/articles/enteral-feeding.aspx. Accessed December 18, 2014.
Gastrostomy feeding by syringe. Cincinnati Children’s website Available at: http://www.cincinnatichildrens.org/health/g/g-tube-syringe. Updated October 2012. Accessed December 18, 2014.
Gravity drip tube feed instructions. University of Maryland Marlene and Steward Greenbaum Cancer Center website. Available at: http://umm.edu/health/medical/ency/carepoints/gastrostomy-feeding-tube-bolus. Accessed December 18, 2014.
Tube feeding. UC Davis Cancer Center website. Available at: http://www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/cancer/pedresource/pedres_docs/tubefeeding.pdf. Updated December 2006. Accessed December 18, 2014.
Tube feeding at home. Queensland Health Government website. Available at: https://www.health.qld.gov.au/nutrition/resources/etf_tfah.pdf. Updated January 2009. Accessed December 18, 2014.
Tube feeding systems. Oral Cancer Foundation website. Available at: http://oralcancerfoundation.org/nutrition/tube-feeding.php. Accessed December 18, 2014.
Tube feed tutorial. California State University website. Available at: http://www.csun.edu/~cjh78264/tubefeeding/tfadmin/index.html. Accessed December 18, 2014.
Last reviewed December 2015 by Daus Mahnke, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.