Breastfeeding Babies with Special Needs
10m read

Breastfeeding Babies with Special Needs

All newborns need their mother’s loving touch and nurturing support. 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.

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!

Infants are naturally drawn to breastfeeding no matter the circumstances of how they were born. Breastfeeding is instinctive for any newborn.

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 newborn 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 newborn, 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 newborn 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 breast milk for special needs babies, and the many additional benefits that assist the increased risk factors these infants face.

Defining Special Needs 

breastfeeding a baby

 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 palate or cleft lip that makes breastfeeding difficult because an infant is unable to create a seal when latching onto mom’s breast (congenital disorder). A cleft palate or cleft lip can be corrected with surgery, but before the procedure, a mother should be able to breastfeed.

  • 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 low 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 palate 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. While preparing to get the treatment or remedy your baby needs, it is important to consult a health care professional such as a lactation consultant to make sure your baby gets the nutrition he or she needs.

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.

Breastfeeding Benefits 

breastfeeding benefits

A baby latching onto a 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 baby with special needs 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.

Challenges and Solutions

We defined special needs as a variety of congenital disorders that hamper breastfeeding and how breast milk and breastfeeding can specifically impact these babies. We'll now go over the challenges and solutions to breastfeeding a baby with special needs. We will dive into the unique challenges babies with special needs and their mothers face as well as a plethora of solutions for improving breastfeeding, such as the best feeding techniques. 

breastfeeding a baby with special needs

The biggest challenge for mothers of special needs infants is to provide a constant supply of breast milk. With a suckling infant, a mother's supply is automatically regulated, but it’s very different when you're challenged to breastfeed your little one.

Expressing (pumping) is the best way to make sure your little one has enough milk for every feed. You may have to express up to 8 times a day or once every 3 hours to begin with. This will stimulate your milk production along with the skin-to-skin time spent with your infant.

Another challenge is diet. What you eat will flavor your breast milk and eating a variety of foods exposes your baby to a range of flavors that will help with the transition to solids. Eat healthily and wash your fruits and vegetables to get rid of any pesticide residue, too. Drink a lot of fluids while breastfeeding or expressing so you stay hydrated. Try and avoid caffeinated drinks as they will interfere with your baby’s sleep pattern. Your pediatrician will discuss your diet with you and how best to keep your milk production at a level that compliments your baby’s needs.

Initially, special needs babies will probably be fed through a tube, and later, a combination of breastfeeding and a cup to supplement the feed. Everything around these early feeding techniques is designed to transition to full breastfeeding. Doctors don’t recommend the use of artificial teats or bottles if normal breastfeeding hasn’t been established yet. Their primary concern is to get your infant to a point where they can safely breastfeed on their own. Your baby’s ability to synchronize sucking, breathing and swallowing will be monitored closely with full feed breastfeeding as the objective. In the meantime, you need to express and bond with your little one.

Breastfeeding Positions 

breastfeeding and special needs

Once your baby is strong enough for you to encourage breastfeeding, there are a number of feeding positions and techniques you can use to further assist the process. We covered these in a separate post, but here's what they are:

  • Laid-back or reclining position

  • Cradle hold

  • Cross-cradle hold

  • Rugby ball hold

  • Side-lying position

  • Koala hold or upright position

  • Dangle feeding

  • Dancer hand position

The dancer hand position or technique offers your baby the necessary support that promotes natural breastfeeding. It may be the best position for babies with special needs. This is a great feeding technique as it supports your infant's head and positions your breast for easy feeding. Follow these easy steps:

  • Hold your baby close to your breast so that his or her head, neck, and spine are aligned. This ensures that your little one is in a naturally comfortable position.

  • Cup your breast with your free hand under your breast with your fingers on the one side and your thumb on the other. 

  • Move your hand slightly forward so your thumb and index finger create a U shape in front of your breast while the other fingers hold your breast in place.

  • Rest your baby’s chin in the U shape so the edge of your palm supports your baby chin while your thumb and index finger rest against your baby’s cheeks.

  • From this position, you will be able to see how your baby latches and feeds.

Using a cup to supplement your baby’s feed can be a long process. Between the limited breastfeeding, and a cup of breastmilk, your little one will get enough food, but you have to monitor the amount your baby drinks so you can keep track of their progress.

Feeding with an open cup can be difficult as you don’t pour the milk into your baby’s mouth. Instead have the rim of the cup rest on your baby bottom lip and then tilt the cup so the milk stops at the rim. Your baby will use their top lip to suck at the milk and will drink very little at a time. This all helps to develop muscle tone that will lead to normal breastfeeding.


breastfeeding baby

Breastfeeding your baby with special needs is the best thing you as a mother can do for your little one. Listen to your doctor and make every effort to ensure you are able to provide enough breast milk for your baby. Spend every possible moment bonding with your baby. Even if breastfeeding is not possible, skin-to-skin time remains vitally important to your little one’s overall development.

You will have to learn to express breast milk for your little one. By doing this you will be giving your baby the best possible nutrition to promote healthy growth. There is an art to feeding an infant breast milk from a cup. Although it is time-consuming, it is worth every second of the time spent as it speeds up their ability to breastfeed normally.

Helping your baby get through their early feeding needs to finally breastfeeding normally shouldn’t be measured by age or weight, but rather by the maturity of ability. However much it takes to provide your baby with breastmilk, you should consider the task as a life-promoting exercise.

How Can KeaBabies Help?

We cannot stress enough that breast milk and breastfeeding is for all who can do it. Every mom and baby needs thoughtfully crafted baby products on their breastfeeding journey, we support your breastfeeding decision by creating intentional products for the journey, special needs or not. Our organic, award-winning baby essentials will assist any momma and baby. Consider burp cloths and silicone or cloth bibs for your baby, and nursing pads for mom on this challenging and rewarding experience. 

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.

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.

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