There are many reasons for breastfeeding a baby with special needs whether you have a premature baby or if your little one has down syndrome
What you need to know
Breastfeeding a baby is an activity that many mothers look forward to as a chance to bond even more closely with their infants, but for mothers who have a newborn with special needs, breastfeeding poses many new challenges and difficulties. Babies who have been born with Down’s syndrome, cleft palates, or other problems can be breastfed but it will take time and effort, and most of all it requires patience from the mother.
Remember that breastfeeding is very normal and yet it is still difficult for almost all mothers at the beginning. Your special needs baby can benefit so much from having this close bonding time with you and they will also benefit of the breast milk produced by your body.
There are many studies that show that breastfed babies do much better at fending off ear infections and minor colds. They also have fewer digestive problems and allergies. With many of the special needs babies, having frequent bouts of problems of this nature is quite common, therefore it is obvious that they can enjoy tremendous benefits from breast feeding opportunities.
All babies who are given milk from their mothers have an advantage because this type of milk has certain antibodies and other nutritional factors that are present. It has been proven that breast milk will help babies with special needs in many critical areas. This milk will help them gain weight, have stronger immune systems and it will prevent many of the gastro-intestinal problems that these babies might otherwise face.
One of the lactation specialists working with moms and infants in Wheaton, Illinois, is Jan Barger. She has noted that breast milk helps protect little ones by building their immune system and strength so that they can have necessary surgeries. This stronger immunity also helps the babies fight off any surgical infections and helps them heal faster when the surgery is over. “Sometimes a mom feels helpless while the doctors are working to help save her baby, but breastfeeding is life-saving too, and this is something that only Mom can do for her baby.”
There are a number of specific challenges that will be faced when you attempt breastfeeding a baby with a special needs, but they can all be met. Learning about your baby and their particular needs will help make successful breastfeeding a reality.
Breastfeeding a Baby with a Cleft Palate
One of the most common problems occurs with those babies who are born with cleft palates. This condition will be able to treated and corrected with surgery in the future, but mothers need to know how to feed their babies now. These babies have trouble trying to hold the nipple with enough suction to suckle. With a cleft palate there is not a seal in the top of the mouth, these infants are missing part of the interior top of the mouth and this creates a cavity from the tongue to the inner nose.
This makes their suckling very difficult because they have trouble trying to form the necessary tight seal on the nipple and they tend to get the milk into their airways. The ability for babies to breastfeed depends on the cleft, your breast size, and the softness of your nipple. If the nipple is quite soft this helps these babies manage to compress it enough to create a seal that will allow them to nurse.
Breastfeeding a Baby with Down Syndrome
With Down syndrome babies, mothers will notice that the infants have muscles that are either too relaxed or very rigid. These muscular problems can create positioning problems when trying to get them into a nursing position. There are also problems encountered that involve protruding, large tongues or flat palates, both of which can create great difficulty in breast-feeding.
Breastfeeding a Baby with Pierre Robin Syndrome
Another condition, known as the Pierre Robin syndrome, makes breastfeeding very challenging for both mothers and infants. These babies are born with very small jaws and they have receding chins. Premature infants can also benefit from your breast milk even if you are not the one doing the feeding; it is still your breast that is providing the nutrition that your baby needs to thrive.
How do you solve these problems?
Regardless of whether your infant has a condition noted here, or some other type of problem, breastfeeding is still possible and beneficial. The degree of severity and the type of condition the child has will affect the way that you approach and handle the breastfeeding , but you will be able to breastfeed your child by adjusting to meet their needs.
Making sure that you have a good milk supply is the first thing for a new mother to do. If you are having trouble nursing your infant then you should use a breast pump every few hours to encourage the “let down” response that will produce the milk. Emotional upsets, stress and anxiety can diminish or halt a supply of milk, so trying to stay calm, well nourished and rested are important concerns for the new mom.
It is a good idea to approach the first few feeding attempts as only times of close sharing and bonding, without actually anticipating a great deal of breastfeeding activity. This lowers the stress on both mother and baby and allows the loving bond to deepen through snuggling and enjoying being close to one another.
Kangaroo care is a useful practice that a new mother can try. This is when mother and child just cuddle closely, with only skin-to-skin contact. Blankets or sheets can cover you while you and baby snuggle together. The activity will stimulate the let down response and increase the mother’s milk supply. The baby may also begin to lick, sniff, and root at the breast on their own when given this non-stressful environment.
Special Help Breastfeeding a Baby
with Special Needs
There are often times when special equipment or modified feeding positions are going to be necessary, if only temporarily. Babies who are born prematurely or who have muscles with little tone will need to have a great deal of support to keep their upper body and head in a good nursing position.
Best Positions for Breastfeeding
There is a position known as the football nursing technique that is often helpful when breastfeeding a baby with special needs. This is when mothers will hold their baby tucked in their arm, just like they would carry a football. You can then use the hand that supports your breast to also give support to the chin and jaw of your baby and your other arm functions as additional body support for the infant.
when breastfeeding a baby with the Pierre Robin diagnosis, the mother will need to be lying under the infant while he is positioned on top of the breast. These babies will not be able to breathe while nursing unless they are kept in a stomach lying position.
Every infant takes to breast-feeding in their own way and at their own pace. Some of the babies who have special needs may need a great deal of time in order to adjust to nursing properly. Sometimes this is due to the baby needing more time for his responses and reflexes to develop more fully, If you have a baby who exhibits difficulty latching on to your nipple you might want to try a nipple shield. This small device just lies over your own nipple and has enough size and definition that may allow your baby to suckle it easier.
Supplemental Nursing Systems
Mothers can still breastfeed by pumping their breasts and using supplemental nursing devices to enjoy the feeding opportunity. There is the Medela’s SNS (supplemental nursing system) that can be used with great success. This is just a tiny bottle and a tube that you can fill with breast milk and attach to your breast or even to a finger. For some babies who have poor sucking reflexes, this will often be an ideal solution.
While proponents of breastfeeding generally do not endorse bottle-feeding there are occasions when it is a help for babies, and this is the case with many of the cleft palate infants. The nipples used for these babies are made of soft silicone and the design is longer than the standard nipples. This makes it much easier for these children to nurse and allows the milk to be swallowed in a safer manner. The design also has a chamber near the nipple that lets the mom control how much milk the baby is getting at any one time.
Where to go for more help?
If you are faced with a breastfeeding dilemma of any type, particularly when breastfeeding a baby with special needs, you can find help through your physician, nurse practitioner, or with lactation consultants at hospitals and health departments. There are also La Leche Leagues in many cities and these are support groups composed of mothers who are breastfeeding.
Many agencies that deal with special needs may also help you find answers, but one of the best places for answers about breastfeeding your special needs baby can be located at online sites that deal with these situations.
Additional Helpful Resources:
Australian Breastfeeding Association’s Breastfeeding a baby with Down Syndrome.
Children’s Hospitals and Clinics Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN–Breastfeeding an infant with cleft lip or cleft palate.
LeLeche League’s Pierre Robin Sequence.