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Parenting

Breastfeeding the Baby with Down Syndrome

Feeding is our first means of communication with babies. It is not just a firm declaration of love, it is also the perfect time for mother and child to bond. A natural dialogue occurs at mealtime between a mother and her baby. There is a pattern to this interaction. The mother looks into her baby’s eyes and she smiles at him; as he grows, he learns to smile back. She speaks to him and he responds with gestures. These gestures may be undecipherable at first but over time, through close observation, she learns to interpret his gestures correctly. She can tell if he is tired, sleepy, full or just being naughty. This dialogue continues even when his menu changes and he moves from her arms to the chair. Beyond getting to know each other, communion at feeding time might call a mother’s attention to signs that point to a particular health challenge that her baby might have. One of such health challenges is Down Syndrome.

Down Syndrome is a congenital disorder stemming from a chromosomal abnormality appearing in about one of every 800 births. This syndrome occurs when one chromosome has an extra “part,” and an error occurs in cell division, or an extra chromosome exists, resulting in 47 chromosomes. Most people are born with 23 pairs of chromosomes, for a total of 46. When the body produces an extra chromosome or genetic material, it alters the way the body develops.  At birth, babies with Down syndrome are often the same size as other babies, but they tend to grow more slowly. Because they often have low muscle tone, they have trouble holding their heads up. Low muscle tone can also mean babies have a hard time sucking and feeding, which can affect their weight.

Breastfeeding a baby boosts the baby’s immune system and protects him against numerous auto-immune disorders. This is especially important for babies with Down Syndrome since they are prone to respiratory and viral infections such as celiac disease, asthma, and allergies. The repetitive sucking action during breastfeeding strengthens the baby’s lips, tongue, and face. However, babies with Down syndrome have physical characteristics that usually impact on breastfeeding. Understanding your baby’s needs will help you adopt suitable breastfeeding techniques that will help both of you. That said, here are a few tips that will help you in breastfeeding a baby with Down Syndrome.

Use a firm cushion to breastfeed the baby

As has already been mentioned, the low muscle tone usually associated with babies with Down Syndrome poses problems when trying to breastfeed them. This is largely because they have trouble supporting their own body weight and usually lack neck strength and head control. Positioning your baby in a comfortable and supportive arrangement will preserve his energy and allow him to use this energy for feeding. It will also help your baby get more milk. So, use a firm pillow to support your baby’s body so his mouth is level with or slightly below your nipple. If your muscles feel strained, use a pillow to support your back, shoulders and arms. Remember to relax. Your milk will flow best when you are calm and comfortable.

Latching

Always hold your baby very close into your body for comfort and the best latch. Ensure your baby gets a large mouthful of breast tissue. This will help your baby draw the milk out and stimulate the breasts to produce more. Sometimes too, expressing some milk onto your nipple prior to breastfeeding may encourage your baby to latch on.

Support your breast tissue near the baby’s chin

Because babies with Down Syndrome generally have poor muscle tone, they tire easily when breastfeeding. By cupping under the breast and taking the pressure off the baby’s chin, you can aid his efficiency and longevity to suck. Please note that the suck-swallow-breathe cycle can take a little longer for babies with Down Syndrome to learn. So, be patient with your baby. 

Buy a Breast Pump and a Medela Special Needs Feeder

Newborns with Down Syndrome can be sleepy and you may need some help via a breast pump to help establish your supply. Along with the pump, you may need a ‘Medela special needs feeder’ (previously known as a Habermann feeder) to feed your baby if he tires easily. These bottles are specially made for babies with additional needs and actually help to teach them to suck with their unique teat that can be squeezed as the baby feeds

In conclusion, cuddle, love and enjoy your baby. Don’t allow the challenges that come with breastfeeding your special baby detract from the joys that should come with those priceless moments of interaction with your baby.

References

The Milk Meg

Healthline

Canadian Down Syndrome Society, Breastfeeding the Baby with Down Syndrome

Becky L. Spivey, What is Down Syndrome?

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Obiamaka Angela Udevi

Udevi, Obiamaka Angela holds a Master of Arts degree in History & International Studies. She's a freelance writer with a passion for food and healthy living. She can be contacted through her email address, obiudevi@yahoo.com

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