The Surprising Benefits of Non-Nutritive Sucking for Babies in the NICU

August 2, 2022

I'm katie, OTD, OTR/L, NTMTC, CNT & founder of blooming littles

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Did you know non-nutritive sucking (NNS) is something every baby engages in??

If you’re wondering whether your baby could benefit from non-nutritive sucking, or even what non-nutritive sucking is…this post is for you!

In this blog post, we’ll dig into 

  1. What non-nutritive sucking is,
  2. what it looks like,
  3. how sucking develops, and
  4. the benefits it can have for your premature baby. 

What is Non-nutritive sucking?

Non-nutritive sucking is a foundational skill that is important for the process of oral feeding and self-regulation.

The ability to perform the motion of sucking is a reflex that most babies are born with. When your baby is sucking while also swallowing milk (like during a feeding), it’s called nutritive sucking. 

While your baby’s ability to suck and swallow may still be immature, there is a way that your baby can practice and focus on the act of sucking without all the other requirements for feeding, and this is called non-nutritive sucking!

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A post shared by Katie | NICU Therapist (@bloominglittles)

What does non-nutritive sucking look like?

Sucking on a pacifier

Did you know there are even pacifiers specifically made for premature babies?

NICU babies who use pacifiers tend to have: better self-regulation, fewer feelings of pain and stress, improved oral motor skills, improved heart and oxygen rates, and better coping skills.

It’s important to note that not all babies want or accept pacifiers, and that’s ok! Offer a pacifier to your sweet baby…but never force it

Sucking on their hands/fingers

When babies bring their hands and fingers to their face, it’s often a comforting experience, and can be an effective way for your baby to soothe themselves if they are stressed. If you’re wondering how to know when your baby is stressed, head over to this post. 

Babies even start doing this in the womb!

Sucking on their breathing or feeding tubes

You may notice your baby sucking on their breathing or feeding tubes! They feel the presence of something around their mouth, so they reflexively start sucking on it. Let them enjoy sucking on that tube as long as they’re safe.

It can build a more positive oral experience that can build a good foundation for feeding.

Sucking on mom’s empty breast.

Did you know you can put your baby to your breast AFTER you pump, when your breast is empty?

Sometimes this is called licking and nuzzling at the breast. Sometimes your baby may mouth the nipple or start sucking on it softly, letting them practice that sucking skill without having to work on swallowing.

Struggling to keep up with pumping while in the NICU? There are some must-have tips that will help ease the burden, in this blog post.

All of these non-nutritive experiences allow your baby’s muscles to practice those sucking skills, grow stronger and get more organized, while also providing your baby with calming and soothing experiences. 

How does sucking actually develop?

Your baby’s ability to suck develops early in the womb. They were beginning to suck on their hands (or maybe even their umbilical cord!) in that first trimester! 

This skill continues to mature throughout pregnancy.  

When a baby is born at term, these skills are usually developed enough to suck, swallow, and breathe effectively enough that they can take a bottle or breastfeed safely.

When babies are born premature (or there’s a disruption in development), this sucking skill may not be mature enough to take on the complex task of feeding.

This is when non-nutritive sucking can be an awesome developmental tool!

Let’s jump into just SOME of the benefits that non-nutritive sucking can have for your baby when they’re healing and growing on this NICU journey.

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A post shared by Katie | NICU Therapist (@bloominglittles)

What are the benefits of non-nutritive sucking?

When premature babies participate in non-nutritive sucking, it can assist in a quicker transition from tube feeding to oral feeding!

This is important because feeding is not only helpful for your baby’s growth and development, but it also allows for a positive bond to grow between you and your baby. Non-nutritive sucking has also been related to an earlier transition to bottle/breastfeeding, fewer tube feeds, and greater weight gain. 

It offers a positive sensory experience.

The feeding experience also exposes your baby to feelings of touch and smell that are great for your baby’s sensory development. NICU babies are commonly exposed to a variety of negative sensory input before they start feeding, like breathing tubes, feeding tubes, or oral suctioning. Non-nutritive sucking can help build a positive, supportive foundation for the days when they will take a bottle or go to the breast.

It provides stability to your baby when they are stressed, as well as allows them to explore their environment.

The action of sucking is a very organizing feeling for your baby, which is why providing your baby with a pacifier may calm your baby when they are upset or stressed. It’s an AWESOME tool for you to use to calm and connect with your baby when they are unable to be held.

It is an effective pain management intervention.

Providing your baby with a pacifier during uncomfortable procedures/tasks such as a heel stick, IV placement, or even diaper changes can help your baby stay calm and feel less pain during these necessary but overwhelming tasks done in the NICU space.

Research shows us that during non-nutritive sucking, providing your baby with sucrose or breastmilk can also help your baby to regulate themselves during uncomfortable tasks.

Ask your nurse if your baby can have some sucrose or breastmilk during a painful or overwhelming procedure to provide some sweet input while sucking on their pacifier. **Be aware that not every baby is allowed to have sucrose as a pain management intervention. Your medical team will know whether it is a safe choice for your baby.

There are so many benefits to non-nutritive sucking!

Offering opportunities for non-nutritive sucking supports feeding goals, promotes the bond between you and your baby, and provides them with a tool that helps them regulate the crazy NICU world, and comforts them when they are feeling stressed.


Did your baby love their pacifier?

interested in learning about how you can provide pain relief in the nicu?

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