Breastfeeding a Baby with Special Needs
Caring for any newborn is rewarding but can be challenging, and the same is true of babies with special needs. “Special needs” refers to a wide variety of physical, emotional, behavioral, and learning disabilities or impairments, so it’s important to learn about your baby’s specific condition. They may require special care that isn’t exactly covered in the typical baby books, so we talked with TLN IBCLC Caitlyn Parker about what you need to know about breastfeeding a baby with special needs.
Can You Breastfeed a Baby with Special Needs?
The short answer is yes! Just because your baby has special needs doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be able to nurse them. Parker explains, “Most babies with special needs can receive breast milk. Depending on their condition [or] diagnosis, the baby will most likely require extra help and attention and may have unique challenges.”
All babies reap the benefits of breast milk. Parker says that “…Most parents find that offering their breast milk or breastfeeding their babies promotes bonding, breastfeeding can reduce high blood pressure, releases oxytocin, a ‘feel good’ hormone, and helps the birthing parent recover quicker from childbirth” In fact, breast milk can be especially beneficial for a baby with special needs.
Benefits of Breastfeeding for Babies with Special Needs
Many physical benefits of breastfeeding a baby with special needs are the same as other babies. However, those same benefits can be extra helpful for some special needs conditions. For example, babies with a cleft lip or palate are prone to upper respiratory infections. Breast milk has antibodies that can help protect your baby from infections or help them heal if recovering from an infection. For babies with Down syndrome who are susceptible to respiratory infections and bowel problems, breast milk can potentially reduce seasonal illnesses and colds and lead to more regular bowel movements. For babies with cystic fibrosis, breast milk can help them gain weight because it is easily digestible.
“Studies show that NICU babies who receive breastmilk and skin-to-skin on average leave the hospital one week sooner than babies who are exclusively formula-fed with minimal skin-to-skin,” says Parker. Breastfeeding can help babies with special needs gain weight, get stronger for any necessary treatments or surgeries, and aid oral development and coordination.
The emotional benefits of breastfeeding are equally important. Raising a baby with special needs can be a rollercoaster; feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, or stressed is normal. As a parent, you may feel powerless and unsure what to do or how to help. Breastfeeding offers a bonding experience shared between baby and parent. Especially early on, feeding sessions are always an opportunity for you to soothe and connect with your baby, even if they don’t feed at all. Breastfeeding is a comfort only a parent can provide, helping you feel closer to your baby.
What Breastfeeding Looks Like with Special Needs
Breastfeeding may look a little different for your family because of your baby’s needs, and that’s okay. Learning how to breastfeed is just that, a learning experience, one you and your baby are doing together. For example, your baby’s special needs may affect their ability to suck, and they may need a little extra help from you during feedings. By learning more about your baby’s condition and working with your IBCLC, you can overcome these challenges together.
Cleft lip or palate
A cleft lip or cleft palate is the fourth most common congenital anomaly and can affect your baby’s ability to latch onto the breast. A cleft palate is an opening in the roof of the mouth connected to the nose, which makes it difficult for a baby to achieve an airtight seal on the breast. Both the size of the cleft and the size of your breast will affect a baby’s sucking ability. Some babies may need a special nipple or nursing system.
Some babies with Down syndrome have no issues breastfeeding. Others may have either too stiff or poorly developed muscles, making it hard to position them. Babies with Down syndrome or other neurological disorders may be sleepy and must be fully woken up before feeding. Breast compression can help keep your baby from dozing off while feeding by keeping the milk flowing.
Babies with cardiac challenges, such as a congenital heart defect, typically have difficulty feeding because they get tired easily. Frequent feedings will help them get the nutrients they need. You’ll also want to begin pumping shortly after delivery and then pump regularly every two to three hours. Pumping early and frequently is crucial as it will help you maintain your milk supply.
Things to Remember
Stay Positive – It may take your baby a few weeks to latch on properly but don’t get discouraged. Remember, this is a new skill you’re both learning, and the benefits are worth it! When asked what new parents of babies with special needs should keep in mind, Parker said, “First, be kind to yourself. Know that breastfeeding can look many different ways… I want families to know they are not alone. The days may feel long, but I promise, this season in life is short. Ask to hold your baby, take photos, talk [and] sing to them, and before you know it, you will be in the next season of life.”
Pump as Needed – While many new parents wait a few weeks before they start pumping, you may need to start sooner depending on your baby’s needs. Parker says, “Your baby may have unique challenges and a detailed care plan for breastfeeding. Depending on your baby’s diagnosis or condition, you may need to pump to establish or maintain your milk supply.” Remember, your baby will benefit from any breast milk you can give them, regardless of how it is received.
Seek Support – Don’t be afraid to ask for help when needed. Needing help doesn’t make you any less of an amazing parent. Your support system can help you overcome any challenges you may experience when breastfeeding. If you know you’re having a baby with special needs ahead of time, book a prenatal appointment with an IBCLC. “An IBCLC can help parents achieve their feeding goals; they can assist with positioning, latching, pumping, and bonding with the baby, just to name a few,” Parker explained.
We often say that just because breastfeeding is natural doesn’t mean it’s easy, especially when breastfeeding a baby with special needs. Parker reflected, “Oftentimes parents think of breastfeeding as all-or-nothing,’ instead, I encourage my families to think of breastfeeding as, ‘Any amount I give will help my baby, even if it’s a few drops.’” You’ve got this.