A newborn is considered premature if he is born prior to the 37th week of pregnancy. Premature babies, or "preemies," enter the world with immature digestive or gastrointestinal systems that are incapable of safely absorbing nutrients, explains the American Pregnancy Association. Premature babies have special nutritional needs as a result.
The digestive tract consists of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine or colon, rectum and anus, explains the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearing House. These organs work together to help break down and absorb food. A lining found inside these organs, called the mucosa, has small glands that make juices that help digest food. A report published in the "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition" says underdeveloped mucosa coupled with an immature immune response is believed to make preemies susceptible to inflammation and injury of the intestines. The ability of the small intestine to move spontaneously is more chaotic in preemies than in full-term infants. Insufficient levels of protective mucus increase the potential for tissue damage in a preemie, the journal report noted.
Premature infants run the risk of developing a potentially serious gastrointestinal condition, called necrotizing enterocolitis. NEC occurs when feeding triggers cells that line the bowel wall to become inflamed and infected. Preemies who consume only breast milk are far less likely to develop NEC than formula fed babies, explains MayoClinic.com. It's theorized that a preemies intestinal tissues are compromised by inadequate oxygen or blood flow, but the exact cause of NEC is unknown. Antibiotics and intravenous feeding help treat NEC.
A premature baby is prone to spitting up food because his tiny stomach -- a key player in the digestive system -- is slow to empty. She may also be unable to suck or swallow on her own. Newborn preemies are often fed intravenously at first. A feeding tube containing breast milk or formula may be introduced a few days after birth.
You can begin to breast or bottle feed your preemie as soon as your doctor gives his consent, explains HealthyChildren.org, a website published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Special "preemie" fortifiers may be added to breast milk or formula, since premature infants need more vitamins and minerals than full-term babies. A premature baby's digestive system should be able to handle solid food at 4 to 6 months after her "expected" due date, not her actual date of birth.