How to breastfeed a baby with Down’s Syndrome

How to breastfeed a down's syndrome baby

by Jane McGuire |
Updated on

Many mothers struggle with breastfeeding, yet when their baby is born with Down’s Syndrome, things can be even more challenging. We spoke to The Down’s Syndrome Association, and real mum Helen Medel Gonzalez to help come up with this guide on how best to overcome breastfeeding problems.

Why do babies with Down’s Syndrome find it harder to breastfeed?

Low muscle tone is a common characteristic of babies born with Down’s Syndrome, this means they have even less neck and muscle control than most babies. The floppiness, combined with a thicker, enlarged tongue that often sticks out, makes sucking and swallowing much more difficult. However, this does not mean, that you will not be able to breastfeed your baby, just that it might take a little more patience and perseverance.

Why is it important to try and preserve with breastfeeding a baby with Down’s Syndrome?

As in all babies, there are health benefits in breastfeeding. Breast milk provides extra protection against infections and helps babies build up their immunity – something especially important in Down’s Syndrome children. In addition, the physical process of breastfeeding has been proven to strengthen a baby’s jaw and face muscles, which can help with speech and language development.

What’s the best advice when it comes to breastfeeding a baby with Down’s Syndrome?

The Down’s Syndrome Association provided the following tips on breastfeeding:

  • Almost all mothers who want to can breastfeed or provide breast milk for their baby. For some mothers breastfeeding is established easily, but other may find it takes a little more time, patience, and perseverance.

  • Support should be available to help you if you want to breastfeed your child. Many hospitals employ a lactation consultant or have midwives with a particular interest in feeding.

  • Some babies will become better at feeding as they grow older and will be able to be fully breastfed.  Some mothers choose not to breastfeed or find that because of their circumstances, breastfeeding is not right for them.

  • A few babies have medical problems which affect feeding. Babies with gastro-intestinal tract (GI tract) disorders who need an operation will not be allowed to feed at first and will get nutrients intravenously. Some babies with heart conditions may be unable to feed immediately because they are tired or breathless; mothers of these babies can express breast milk by hand or pump to build up their milk supply. Their milk can be given to their babies by naso-gastric tube when the babies are well enough. With patience, and following surgery for any medical conditions, these babies can often fully breastfeed eventually.

We spoke to Helen Medel Gonzalez, who struggled to breastfeed her daughter Mia. ‘When Mia was born by emergency C-section, she was initially a little floppy. We could not get her to latch on or feed. She was unable to maintain her body temperature so was in a heated cot, under a lamp to help with jaundice, which made her extremely sleepy – this made it even more difficult to try and get her to latch on. I had to express every feed and give it to her via a syringe or a cup. After a while she started to take a little bottle and a feeding specialist came in to try and help with different positions.’

‘With determination (and a lot of tears) I eventually got Mia to latch on and start feeding. She would tire very quickly, only sucking a few times then falling sleep. We were readmitted to hospital two weeks later, as Mia had prolonged jaundice and there was talk of inserting a feeding tube. I really didn’t want this for my baby, so expressed milk every three hours – it was exhausting, but I was determined to keep going.’

‘The longer I fed for, the easier she found it to latch on until eventually I no longer had to express her feeds. I cried with relief when I first saw her little face looking up at me – that moment made it all worthwhile. Mia is now almost ten months; she was solely breastfed and is a very healthy little girl.’

Are there other health problems I need to look out for?

Between 1 to 5% of babies with Down Syndrome also suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD). If your baby falls into this category, they may arch their back and cry during feeds, or vomit whilst you’re feeding. Your GP will be able to advise you on the best ways to deal with this, but rest assured there are a number of solutions which still allow you to breastfeed your baby.

Will my baby have feeding problems as he/she grows up?

When your baby is ready for solid foods, it may take them a bit longer to learn how to feed themselves. The Down’s Syndrome Association recommends you introduce finger foods as you would any other child, offering different textures and flavours. Allow your child to touch and play with different foods, and know that it’s normal for your child to not want to try a new food straight away – it might take a few tries before they will eat it. If you are struggling, your child’s speech and language therapist will be able to give you personalised advice about feeding.

It’s also worth noting, 1 to 16% of people with Down’s Syndrome will also suffer from coeliac disease. This is a common condition where the body’s immune system attacks itself when gluten is eaten, meaning wheat, barley and rye products are off the menu. It can often be difficult to spot coeliac disease and surprisingly only 10-15% of people are ever properly diagnosed, so it’s recommended that all children with Down’s Syndrome get tested between the ages of two and three.

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