• preterm;
  • oxygenation;
  • desaturation;
  • oral feeding;
  • bottle feeding;
  • sucking;
  • energy;
  • breathing;
  • nursing

Background. During the time when preterm infants’ oral feeding skills are developing they often experience physiological instability and need assistance from caregivers to maintain adequate oxygenation. Assisting infants to maintain optimal oxygenation during oral feeding requires an understanding of how they express and aim to self-regulate their oxygen status.

Aim. The purpose of this study was to identify potential behavioural indicators of declining oxygenation during preterm infant early bottle-feeding.

Method. The design was explorative. Data were collected from a secondary analysis of 20 videotapes of preterm infant bottle feedings which included concurrent oxygen saturation data. In this analysis infant behaviours and quality of breathing were coded and compared across three periods: high oxygen saturation, immediately preceding an oxygen desaturation event, and during an oxygen desaturation event.

Findings. Infants gave limited behavioural indicators of declining oxygenation. Immediately prior to a desaturation event, they had an increase in eye flutter and were typically sucking and apnoeic. During a desaturation event, they typically relaxed their arms/hands and stopped sucking.

Conclusions. Reliance on preterm infant behavioural cues will be insufficient for detection of oxygen desaturation during oral feeding. Attention to changes in breath sounds and to the pattern of sucking are potentially important intervention strategies for the prevention of and appropriate response to oxygen decline during feeding. Sucking pauses may be a time when preterm infants aim to regulate their breathing pattern and thereby increase oxygenation. Interventions that focus on detection and minimization of apnoea during feeding, and which aim to protect infant sucking pauses, may reduce the number and severity of desaturation events preterm infants experience during bottle feeding.