What is flow rate and why does it matter?

a cute baby girl drinking milk from a bottle

What is flow rate and why does it matter?

Milk flow rate is the rate that milk moves from a bottle nipple into an infant’s mouth during bottle-feeding. The faster a nipple’s flow rate, the more frequently your baby has to swallow. Most healthy, full-term babies are able to adapt their sucking technique to manage milk flow. Pre-term or medically fragile babies, on the other hand, may have trouble safely coordinating sucking, swallowing, and breathing during feeding. For those babies, a slower flow rate helps prevent milk from going down the wrong pipe.

A cautionary word about flow rate labels

Nipples are often labeled with flow rate descriptions like slow, medium, or fast. They may also be described by age range: preemie or newborn, for instance. Some nipples even promise a flow rate that ends lazy feeding or prevents colic. However, several studies have found that the actual milk flow rate often varies among brands and sometimes even within a brand. In other words, what counts as slow varies, even, in some cases, among nipples in the same pack. In addition, a label does not necessarily provide an accurate description of the numeric flow rate, which is what you really need to know if your baby is more medically vulnerable.

Flow rates based on age

It’s common for brands to label nipple levels by age range. Slower flow supports newborns as they learn to feed orally. It gives them time to get the hang of alternating between sucking, swallowing, and breathing. Faster flow rates ensure older babies who’ve got the hang of feeding (and who are way hungrier) don’t get frustrated. That being said, every baby has their own feeding style, and your baby’s style not fit the label. For example, some babies are perfectly content to use a “newborn” nipple for much longer than the label might suggest, while some little newborns pick up their pace faster than you’d expect and are ready for a faster flow sooner.

How do you know if your baby needs a faster flow rate?

Your baby will give you subtle signs when they’re ready for an upgrade on their nipple flow rate. Your baby might:

  • Become fussy, frustrated, or fidgety at mealtime
  • Fall asleep while eating
  • Take longer than usual to finish eating
  • Suck with more force than usual
  • Flatten the nipple
  • Eat less during feedings but get hungry soon after

How do you know if your baby needs a slower flow rate?

Babies also give you hints when the flow rate is too fast. Your baby might:

  • Drool or dribble milk
  • Cough, gulp, or choke
  • Push the bottle away
  • Lose eye contact
  • Look worried or stressed

Choosing a nipple flow rate for your health-compromised baby

Preterm infants and other medically fragile babies, especially those with respiratory disease and those with some kinds of congenital heart disease, are more vulnerable to aspiration. These infants have to become proficient at orally feeding before they’re released, so their first nipples will be provided by the hospital. However, it can be difficult to find these particular brands of nipples out in the real world. If your baby is medically fragile, it’s a good idea to speak to your baby’s doctor and to a lactation consultant to learn which readily available brands and styles they recommend.

Having trouble deciding on the right nipple for your baby’s bottles?

New moms have so many decisions to make these days, and even the little decisions are important to the health of your little one. At Milk N Mamas Baby, we’ve got experienced moms with lots of experience in medical equipment on hand to talk to you as you decide what’s best for your baby. Give us a call today if you’d like more information about choosing the best nipples for your baby’s bottles.

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