When your baby is in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), so much can feel out of your control. The unfamiliar surroundings and medical terminology may leave you with questions — including how your baby will be fed.

This new experience can have a steep learning curve, but by equipping yourself with the right  knowledge, you will feel more prepared to make decisions and advocate for the best nutrition for your baby in the NICU.

Here are five important things about feeding a baby in the NICU:

1. Fed is best.

You may not be able to feed your baby directly initially, and no matter how your baby eats, fed is best. Before breast or bottle, your preemie will likely eat through an IV first, then through a feeding tube.

2. Learning to eat can be challenging.

Preemies must first learn to suck and swallow, and then to coordinate the two while continuing to breathe. It takes time for preemies to master these new skills in order to nurse or bottle-feed — and each baby learns in their own time.

3. You can still give your baby breast milk.

Breast milk offers preemies a world of benefit in protecting against illness and providing fuel for growth. Even if your little one can’t nurse in the NICU, your breast milk is still the best thing for your preemie. Most NICUs provide a breast pump so moms can pump milk because the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends breast milk for all preemies, whether it’s mom’s own or donor milk.

4. Your milk may need a boost.

Preemies need extra calories, protein, and nutrients to thrive. The AAP recommends adding "human milk fortifier" to breast milk. It’s important to know: not all fortifiers are made from human milk! Most fortifiers are cow milk-based, which is known to increase the risk of severe complications in preemies. Ask your baby's care team about adding a fortifier made with 100 percent donor human milk by Prolacta Bioscience to your baby's breast milk instead of the standard cow milk-based fortifier.

5. Forcing a feeding is not helpful.

Babies learn to eat at their own pace and forcing a feeding doesn’t speed things up. And, encouraging a feeding that isn’t natural could increase the chances of your baby developing an "oral aversion," when babies refuse anything in their mouths (even breast or bottle).