Preterm birth is associated with immature digestive function that may require the use of total parenteral nutrition and special oral feeding regimens. Little is known about the responses to oral food in the preterm neonate and how enteral nutrients affect the immature gastrointestinal tract (GIT). In vivo studies are difficult to perform in laboratory rodents because of their small body size and that of immature organs at birth, and this makes the large farm animals (e.g., pigs, cattle, sheep) more attractive models in this field. In these species, preterm delivery at 88%-95% gestation is associated clinical complications and degrees of GIT immaturity similar to those in infants born at 70%-90% gestation. Studies in both animals and infants indicate that the immature GIT responds to the first enteral food with rapid increases in gut mass and surface area, blood flow, motility, digestive capacity, and nutrient absorption. To a large extent, the enteral food responses are birth independent, and can be elicited also in utero, at least during late gestation. Nevertheless, preterm neonates show compromised GIT structure, function, and immunology, particularly when delivered by caesarean section and fed diets other than mother's milk. Formula-fed preterm infants are thus at increased risk of developing diseases such as necrotizing enterocolitis, unless special care is taken to avoid excessive nutrient fermentation and bacterial overgrowth. The extent to which results obtained in preterm animals (most notably the pig) can be used to reflect similar conditions in preterm infants is discussed.