Breastfeeding a baby with special needs
Whether feeding or expressing, there are ways to make sure that special needs babies get the benefits of breastfeeding.
The benefit of breastfeeding your baby is supported by great big mounds of evidence, and these benefits are even more important for a baby born with special needs.

Jacquie Nutt, an international board-certified lactation consultant and founder of Milk Matters, a human milk bank, agrees ‘Breastfeeding is not simply nutritional, it has an effect on the way in which a baby’s brain is wired, their palate development, it is comforting and bonding, and it also regulates the heartbeat and oxygen saturation levels.’

Breastfeeding a preemie

While breastfeeding can be simply impossible for a premature baby, expressed breast milk is very important for their development. This is because breast milk is easier to digest and it contains an enzyme called lipase, which helps the baby’s body to process – and use - the fat in the milk better, resulting in better chance to gain some much-needed weight.
‘Breast milk has anti-infective and anti-inflammatory properties, both vital in protecting babies from potentially harmful bacterial infections. Premature babies also benefit from better vision due to mother’s milk because it helps to mature the brainstem and nervous system,’ says Laura Sayce, La Leche League Leader.

Breastfeeding a baby with a cleft

Breast milk also protects babies from ear and respiratory infections, which are common with a cleft lip or palate, as well as providing an overall health benefit. ‘A baby who is facing surgery, as is the case with a cleft, really needs all the protection they can get against infection, which a mother’s milk provides,’ says Laura.

When it comes to the logistics of feeding a baby with a cleft, the breast itself is much more pliable than a plastic bottle nipple, and so, while it isn’t always possible, in most cases the breast can actually mould itself and compensate for abnormalities in the mouth structure.

Breastfeeding a baby with Down syndrome

It is often assumed that babies with Down syndrome will not have a strong enough suck reflex to latch on and breastfeed properly, which is not always the case. They may take a bit longer to complete a feed and will need to rest during a feed, but it is often possible for them to breastfeed exclusively.

In addition, the respiratory infections and bowel problems that are so common in babies with Down syndrome are kept at bay through breast milk. ‘The natural act of breastfeeding also increases the baby’s facial muscle tone, and helps the baby to develop mouth and tongue coordination which is beneficial for speech development later on in life,’ Laura adds.

Expressing breast milk

When breastfeeding is really and truly not possible, as is sometimes the case, expressing breast milk, which is then fed to the baby is the next best thing. ‘If breastfeeding isn’t working or isn’t possible as soon as the baby is born, the mother needs to be shown how to express milk from day one in order to establish a strong milk supply,’ explains Jacquie.

Breasts work on a supply-and-demand basis, and the more a mother expresses the more she will be able to express.

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