Feeding preterm infants in response to their hunger and satiation cues (ad libitum or demand/semi demand) rather than at scheduled intervals might help in the establishment of independent oral feeding, increase nutrient intake and growth rates, and allow earlier hospital discharge.
To assess the effect of a policy of feeding preterm infants on an ad libitum or demand/semi-demand basis versus feeding prescribed volumes at scheduled intervals on growth rates and the time to hospital discharge.
We used the standard search strategy of the Cochrane Neonatal Review Group. This included searches of the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL, The Cochrane Library, Issue 1, 2006), MEDLINE (1966 - March 2006), EMBASE (1980 - March 2006), CINAHL (1982 - March 2006), conference proceedings, and previous reviews.
Randomised or quasi-randomised controlled trials (including cluster randomised trials) that compared a policy of feeding preterm infants on an ad libitum or demand/semi-demand basis versus feeding at scheduled intervals.
Data collection and analysis
The standard methods of the Cochrane Neonatal Review Group with separate evaluation of trial quality and data extraction by two review authors. The primary outcomes of interest were growth rates and age at hospital discharge.
We found seven randomised controlled trials that compared ad libitum or demand/semi-demand regimes with scheduled interval regimes in preterm infants in the transition phase from intragastric tube to oral feeding. The trials were generally small and of variable methodological quality. The duration of the intervention and the duration of data collection and follow up in most of the trials is not likely to have allowed detection of measurable effects on growth. The single trial that assessed growth for longer than one week found that the rate of weight gain was lower in the ad libitum fed infants [mean difference -3.30 (95% confidence interval -6.2 to -0.4) grams per kilogram per day]. Two trials reported that feeding preterm infants using an ad libitum or demand/semi-demand feeding regime allowed earlier discharge from hospital, but the other trials did not confirm this finding. We were not able to undertake meta-analyses because of differences in study design and in the way the findings were reported.
There are insufficient data at present to guide clinical practice. A large randomised controlled trial is needed to determine if ad libitum of demand/semi-demand feeding of preterm infants affects clinically important outcomes. This trial should focus on infants in the transition phase from intragastric tube to oral feeding and should be of sufficient duration to assess effects on growth and time to oral feeding and hospital discharge.