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Posted on by Bun Maternity

Breastfeeding a child with Special needs

As delivery nears, most moms to be are busy checking off their third-trimester checklist, washing baby clothes, and packing hospital bags

But if you know that you are carrying a special needs child, other worries are probably running through your mind. You may be wondering about development, about how you will cope once home, and about how to breastfeed or if you even can breastfeed.

The good news is that the answer, in many cases, is yes, you can breastfeed. You and your little one may need extra support and a few extra tricks to make it work, but children with special needs can be just as successful at breastfeeding as their typically developing peers. 

Special needs babies benefit even more from having moms milk. Human milk reduces baby's susceptibility to infection and allergies and can provide emotional support and healing after surgeries and procedures. 

So how can you give yourself and your baby the best start to breastfeeding in spite of these challenges? Read on to find out.  

How to Breastfeed 101: Mindset

With medical science being what it is, you may have found out while you were pregnant that your child was going to be born with a special need.

Maybe an ultrasound revealed a cleft palette, or a blood test suggested Downs Syndrome. 

Whether you knew ahead of time or only found out at birth, your most important asset in successful breastfeeding is your mindset. 

It sounds cliche, perhaps because it is, but the power of positive thinking cannot be understated. Before you sit down to nurse, or perhaps when your little on is already in your arms, close your eyes and breathe for a moment. Allow yourself to be entirely in the moment.

Seek out and read positive breastfeeding stories, especially from others moms who have breastfed special needs babies. Take the time just to bond with your baby outside of nursing, so that you do not come to view it as a chore. 

In a time that may be full of uncertainty, infuse yourself with positivity. 

Establishing a supply

The next thing to do is to think about establishing a good supply of milk. 

Depending on your child's specific needs, they may have a difficult time learning how to breastfeed and getting enough milk out of the breast to help you establish a supply purely on demand. 

Children with cleft palates may have trouble creating a seal on the breast in order to suck effectively, and a little one with Pierre Robin syndrome may not be able to properly latch due to a small jaw and receding chin.  

To help make up for this, make sure you are pumping after each feeding to fully empty the breast, and pump any time you need to supplement. This ensures that your body is producing enough milk for your baby, even if latch issues prove to be a problem. 

Make sure you are using a quality pump. Occasional pumping for a date night is one thing, but when you are pumping to establish and maintain a supply, you need something more efficient than a hand pump. Call your insurance provider to see what options are available for a double electric pump, or consider renting a hospital grade pump. 

Positioning

The traditional cradle hold may not work well for little ones with special needs. 

Downs Syndrome especially can come with little muscles that are too stiff or too relaxed for effective breastfeeding in this position. There are several positions you can try, but often the football hold is one that works well for babies with special needs.  

As your little one is learning how to breastfeed, bring them to your breast by holding their head in your right hand, supporting their back with your right forearm and bringing them to your right breast (picture a football player carrying a football.) This gives you more control of your baby's head and the ability to help them latch properly. 

You can also practice kangaroo care even when it is not the time for baby to eat. Snuggle with your baby on your chest under blankets. They will often instinctually begin to root for the breast.   

This allows them to practice their latch when they are less hungry and less prone to frustration.   

Tools

In order to help alleviate some of the difficulties special needs babies may have, your doctor or lactation consultant may suggest nipple shields or a supplemental nursing device. 

A nipple shield is a flexible, silicone nipple that is worn over your own nipple during nursing to help baby achieve and maintain a better latch. They are a short-term solution but can help your baby get enough milk until they figure out how to latch without it. 

A supplemental nursing device is a bag or syringe worn around the neck or held in the hand. It is connected to a long piece of thin tubing that is taped to the breast during a nursing section. The bag or syringe is filled with milk or formula that releases into baby's mouth during the nursing session. 

Supplemental nursing systems can help ensure baby is getting enough to eat without causing nipple confusion or preference for a bottle over mama's breast.

Self Care

This is important for any new mom, but especially when your baby has special needs. It is vital that you don't forget to take care of yourself. 

Even if this means just buying yourself a new dress or taking a few minutes to shower on your own or painting your toes while baby naps, those few minutes to think of yourself and your own needs will go a long way to helping you maintain the energy and positivity needed to continue breastfeeding. 

Part of self-care is also adjusting your expectations. 

A special needs child might need a few ounces of formula here and there. They might need a bottle or a feeding tube. Allow yourself a break and the understanding that while your expectations may have to change, the fact that you love your child and are a good mother doesn't. Go with the flow and adjust as needed. 

Special needs babies come might come with complications beyond medical. Learning how to breastfeed can be a challenge, for you and for your new little one. But with positivity, the right support, and determination, it is an achievable and rewarding goal.