Nutrition for critically ill children in paediatric intensive care units

There is little evidence to support or refute the need to provide nutrition to critically ill children in a paediatric intensive care unit during the first week of their critical illness.

Giving nutrition in the form of tube feeding (enteral) or intravenous feeding (parenteral) is often considered a priority during critical illness in children. There are reasons to think this may not necessarily be true. During critical illness the body's metabolism is changed and the need for calories is reduced. There are known side effects from giving too much nutrition, such as delays in being able to take the child off a respiratory ventilator, liver problems, and worsened inflammation.

We found only one small randomized controlled trial that compared early feeding (within 24 hours of injury) with conventional feeding (after at least 48 hours). The trial showed no differences between the groups for any of the outcomes examined. Further research in this area is urgently needed to help guide optimal treatment of children with critical illness. In a recent search update (February 2016) we identified a protocol for a relevant randomized controlled study; however, no results have yet been published.

Authors' conclusions: 

There was only one randomized trial relevant to the review question. Research is urgently needed to identify best practices regarding the timing and forms of nutrition for critically ill infants and children.

Read the full abstract...

Nutritional support in the critically ill child has not been well investigated and is a controversial topic within paediatric intensive care. There are no clear guidelines as to the best form or timing of nutrition in critically ill infants and children. This is an update of a review that was originally published in 2009. .


The objective of this review was to assess the impact of enteral and parenteral nutrition given in the first week of illness on clinically important outcomes in critically ill children. There were two primary hypotheses:

1. the mortality rate of critically ill children fed enterally or parenterally is different to that of children who are given no nutrition;
2. the mortality rate of critically ill children fed enterally is different to that of children fed parenterally.

We planned to conduct subgroup analyses, pending available data, to examine whether the treatment effect was altered by:

a. age (infants less than one year versus children greater than or equal to one year old);
b. type of patient (medical, where purpose of admission to intensive care unit (ICU) is for medical illness (without surgical intervention immediately prior to admission), versus surgical, where purpose of admission to ICU is for postoperative care or care after trauma).

We also proposed the following secondary hypotheses (a priori), pending other clinical trials becoming available, to examine nutrition more distinctly:

3. the mortality rate is different in children who are given enteral nutrition alone versus enteral and parenteral combined;
4. the mortality rate is different in children who are given both enteral feeds and parenteral nutrition versus no nutrition.

Search strategy: 

In this updated review we searched: the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL 2016, Issue 2); Ovid MEDLINE (1966 to February 2016); Ovid EMBASE (1988 to February 2016); OVID Evidence-Based Medicine Reviews; ISI Web of Science - Science Citation Index Expanded (1965 to February 2016); WebSPIRS Biological Abstracts (1969 to February 2016); and WebSPIRS CAB Abstracts (1972 to February 2016). We also searched trial registries, reviewed reference lists of all potentially relevant studies, handsearched relevant conference proceedings, and contacted experts in the area and manufacturers of enteral and parenteral nutrition products. We did not limit the search by language or publication status.

Selection criteria: 

We included studies if they were randomized controlled trials; involved paediatric patients, aged one day to 18 years of age, who were cared for in a paediatric intensive care unit setting (PICU) and had received nutrition within the first seven days of admission; and reported data for at least one of the pre-specified outcomes (30-day or PICU mortality; length of stay in PICU or hospital; number of ventilator days; and morbid complications, such as nosocomial infections). We excluded studies if they only reported nutritional outcomes, quality of life assessments, or economic implications. Furthermore, we did not address other areas of paediatric nutrition, such as immunonutrition and different routes of delivering enteral nutrition, in this review.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two authors independently screened the searches, applied the inclusion criteria, and performed 'Risk of bias' assessments. We resolved discrepancies through discussion and consensus. One author extracted data and a second checked data for accuracy and completeness. We graded the evidence based on the following domains: study limitations, consistency of effect, imprecision, indirectness, and publication bias.

Main results: 

We identified only one trial as relevant. Seventy-seven children in intensive care with burns involving more than 25% of the total body surface area were randomized to either enteral nutrition within 24 hours or after at least 48 hours. No statistically significant differences were observed for mortality, sepsis, ventilator days, length of stay, unexpected adverse events, resting energy expenditure, nitrogen balance, or albumin levels. We assessed the trial as having unclear risk of bias. We consider the quality of the evidence to be very low due to there being only one small trial. In the most recent search update we identified a protocol for a relevant randomized controlled trial examining the impact of withholding early parenteral nutrition completing enteral nutrition in pediatric critically ill patients; no results have been published.