Breastfeeding and Special Needs (Part 1 of 2)
All newborns need their mother’s loving touch and nurturing support. This is especially essential in the early stages of an infant’s life. The bond that is formed between mother and child is a deeply rooted one and the majority of people will maintain this first bonding experience with their mother throughout their lives. It truly is a natural wonder!
Nature & Nurture
For babies, breastfeeding is said to be instinctive. This was demonstrated in research conducted in 1987 in Sweden at the Karolinska Institute where the phrase “breast crawl” was coined. A new-born was placed tummy to tummy on mom’s stomach, and within an hour, most infants crawled or wriggled towards mom’s breast and started feeding.
Infants are born with an instinctive nature to find moms breast and feed, but not every child is the same. Infants are all unique and some babies will need some extra help with feeding. Their ability to naturally latch onto mom’s breast and feed may have been compromised during pregnancy for a number of reasons.
In order for babies to breastfeed properly, they need to control the sequences of sucking, breathing, and swallowing. This is a tall order for a new-born, especially knowing that it requires 40 muscles in the lips, tongue, jaw and cheeks, as well as 6 cranial nerves to successfully master breastfeeding.
Complications during pregnancy may result in the breastfeeding ability of a new-born being underdeveloped or restricted and these infants will need extra help with feeding. So, today's article is all about addressing infants with this need.
Because this is a subject by which we have to view things from a somewhat different angle, this topic will be broken into two articles. Let's start with what we mean by special needs, the importance of breastmilk for special needs babies, and the many additional benefits that assists the increased risk factors these infants face.
Defining Special Needs
The term “special needs” refers to infants who are born with congenital disorders, commonly known as birth defects, that limit their ability to carry out the functions of an average, healthy full-term infant. Special needs arise from:
- A cleft pallet or cleft lip that makes breastfeeding difficult because an infant is unable to create a seal when latching onto mom’s breast (congenital disorder).
- Premature birth where normal development has not yet reached maturity. This normally relates to weak muscle tone and poor nerve response.
- Complications during pregnancy that may result in reduced cognitive or neurological development often caused by an illness that results in weak muscle tone and poor motor skills considered normal at birth.
- Down’s syndrome or other trisomy disorders like Edwards’ syndrome tend to portray reduced muscle tone and mouth and tongue coordination resulting in feeding difficulties.
- Pierre Robin syndrome results in a much smaller lower jaw and is normally associated with a cleft pallet wherein the tongue falls to the back of the mouth and makes breastfeeding virtually impossible.
Although all these stated conditions put a baby into the special needs’ category, the majority are temporary conditions that can be remedied with time and, in some cases, surgery. Special needs mean that your baby needs added assistance with feeding as they cannot latch onto mom’s breast and feed themselves.
The Importance of Breastmilk
Breast milk is the one natural food source for babies that provides for their every need. Special needs babies benefit from breast milk just as much as full-term babies do. However, it’s not only mother’s milk that babies need. Infants also benefit greatly from skin-to-skin bonding time with mom, and this has been scientifically proven. Here are some benefits of breast milk:
- Provides antibodies, anti-inflammatory, growth factors and live cells that boost the immune system and prevent infection.
- Encourages the development of the gut and other organs that help in the healing process. It also reduces the negative effects of dehydration.
- Provides enzymes to make digestion and absorbing milk easier. Breast milk is digested a lot easier than other foods (such as baby formula).
- Provides essential fatty acids that promote brain development.
An infant latching onto mom’s breast is not just about feeding. It is part of the very essential bonding process between mother and child. Childbirth is traumatic for both mom and baby, and each comforts the other. Skin-to-skin time helps to comfort your little one and makes them feel secure. Other than the fact that it stimulates milk production, it also helps to give mothers a sense of purpose.
If your special needs baby cannot suckle properly, it is still a comforting exercise for your baby to be able to practice for the time when breastfeeding will become possible. As muscle tone improves, they will slowly begin to extract a bit of milk from your breast, but they will still need alternative feeding until they are strong enough to feed completely on their own.
Infants who have had mouth surgery will not be able to immediately suckle due to their changed mouth dynamic and the pain that goes along with the surgery. Still, it remains important for you to give your little one every opportunity to practice suckling on your breast.
Naturally, your infant will be fed through alternative means during this time and your doctor will have set out a feeding plan for your baby. In most cases, it will require you to express milk that will be fed to your baby through a feeding tube or by using a cup.
Each special needs baby will have unique issues that pose a varying degree of breastfeeding challenges for them. The stronger your baby becomes, the easier breastfeeding will become.
Here are some advantages of breastfeeding your special needs infant:
- It will help with mouth and tongue coordination, which is necessary for speech later on.
- Improves resistance to infections. It is common for special needs babies to be more prone to illness than other babies.
- Lowers the odds of obesity in later years.
- Promotes brain (cognitive) development.
- Helps with the overall development, strengthening bone and muscle as well as organ functions.
- Develops a good and lasting bond between mother and child.
Breastfeeding can be a challenge as is, and it can be more demanding with a child who has additional needs. We hope we touched on how vital breastfeeding can be in these circumstances.
Our next article will dive into the unique challenges special needs babies and their mothers face as well as plethora of solutions for improving breastfeeding, such as the best feeding techniques.
How Can KeaBabies Help?
Every mom and baby needs thoughtfully crafted baby products on their breastfeeding journey, special needs or not. Our organic, award winning baby essentials will assist any momma and baby.
Meet Our KeaMommy Contributor: Nadia Rumbolt
Nadia Rumbolt is a mom of many trades, including creative writing, blogging, van life, minimalism, veganism, the beach, nature, and the occult.