University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust

Short bowel syndrome

The intestine is about 300cm long in term babies at birth. Various conditions can damage the intestine before or after birth but the most common causes are small bowel atresia and necrotising enterocolitis. If more than half the intestine is missing the baby may have problems absorbing milk, and later, food. The shorter the amount of bowel present, the greater the problem the baby will have. 

What are the effects on my baby?

In mild cases the only effect is rather loose and frequent bowel actions.

In moderate cases special formula milks are needed to make it easier for the baby to absorb enough milk to grow normally. Medicines may be needed to reduce diarrhoea. With time the intestine recovers and the baby can tolerate normal milk and normal food.

In severe cases feeding may have to take the form of fluids (TPN) given into a vein (usually via a long line). Over the next weeks or months the baby's intestine becomes able to absorb special milk and can be discharged home. Eventually the baby may be able to tolerate normal milk and food.

In extreme cases there is not enough intestine present for the baby to survive without TPN for many months or even years. Unfortunately many of these babies die often after months or years in hospital due to complications of TPN treatment. However bowel transplant operations are available and are becoming more successful.


University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust produce guidelines as an aid to good clinical practice. They represent recognised methods and techniques of clinical practice, based on published evidence. The ultimate judgement regarding a particular clinical procedure or treatment must be made by the clinician in the light of the clinical data presented by the patient and the diagnostic or treatment options available. The guidelines issued are not intended to be prescriptive directions defining a single course of management and departure from the local guidelines should be fully documented in the patient's case notes at the time the relevant decision is taken.