Traditional Feeding Culture in the NICU: The Power of Language

By Sue Ludwig and Kara Ann Waitzman

Many People Holding the Word Culture, Isolated[/caption]Written, verbal, and non-verbal language is a powerful part of every culture. However, you can’t find cultural messages written down anywhere. In the NICU, you will not find cultural norms written into a policy or formally taught in orientation.

The problem is, every day, fellow colleagues and families are unknowingly taught (even if just overheard) negative cultural messages about feeding.

Two examples:

#1: You (or parent) hear: “She just PO fed at 0900. She’ll be too tired to try again at noon.”

Cultural message it conveys: Caregivers can predict (and pre-decide) feeding readiness without a real time assessment of the infant. This goes against all we know about assessing feeding readiness and individualized patient care.

#2: You (or parent) hear: “He took 15mls in 8 minutes and then got tired. But I got him to take the rest over 20 minutes with lots of encouragement.”

Cultural message it conveys: Disinterest/fatigue/disengagement cues are not valid reasons to stop an oral feeding if desired volume intake has not yet been achieved. In other words, volume is the only definition of success and it’s ok to ignore the infant’s cues. It also implies that ‘lots of encouragement’, which is not an objective, valid, or appropriate technique, is an okay method and term to describe how to support an infant to orally eat.

Here’s the great and scary news: your colleagues, orientees, NICU parents and families are listening to you. Your words are powerful and they have meaning. The solution: ensure that your language is positive and rooted in the latest evidence and best practice.

As neonatal caregivers, we have all spoken a certain way about feeding for decades and it takes intentional and continuous work to weed this language out of our vocabulary. So be gentle with yourself. But take notice. Increase your awareness. Find and use new language (which reflects best practice) and watch the old culture shift, advance, and wholly support you, your team, and the babies and families in your care.