In the vast majority of cases, a mother who wants to breastfeed or otherwise give breast milk to their baby will be able to do that. This is a process that’s easily established for some mothers, but which can take a bit of extra patience, determination and time for other mothers.
Babies with Down syndrome can be breast or bottle fed like any other child.
– ACT Down Syndrome Association
If you want to breastfeed your child, support should be available to allow you to do that. Midwives with a particular interest in feeding problems, as well as lactation consultants, will be on call in many hospitals, and it’s their goal to help you.
Breast milk provides extra protection against infections and helps babies build up their immunity – something especially important in Down’s Syndrome children.
– Jane McGuire, Mother & Baby
Feeding can sometimes be a little more difficult for babies with Down syndrome. There’s no need to despair, though, as there are a number of things you can do to make mealtimes easier for your baby, and for yourself.
Some babies with Down syndrome will eventually be able to be fully breastfed, getting better at feeding as they grow older. However, breastfeeding is not right for all mothers and if your circumstances seem to be conspiring against you, it’s completely acceptable to opt for formula instead.
Why Is It so Difficult?
- Low Muscle Tone
Low muscle tone is an issue for many babies with Down syndrome. If this reduced muscle tone affects your baby’s tongue, cheeks and/or lips, they may have a weak suck and struggle to establish a tight seal on your nipple.
A baby with low muscle tone usually sucks better when the head and bottom are level, or close to it. Support your baby using pillows on your lap.
– Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota
- Low Energy
Some babies with Down syndrome will simply be too sleepy to feed effectively. They may find it hard to gain weight, getting tired before they’re able to get their fill of milk. In the first three or four days of life, all babies will lose up to 10% of their birth weight. However, while most babies will regain this weight quite quickly, those with Down syndrome can take a bit longer.
It’s important that you keep track of your infant’s weight. Your personal child health record should include an insert with a special Down’s syndrome growth chart, and you can use this to plot their weight gain.
- Medical Issues
Medical problems which affect feeding will be an issue for some babies with Down syndrome. For example, your baby will need to get nutrients intravenously if they have a GI (gastrointestinal) tract disorder and need an operation, as they will not be allowed to breastfeed initially. Mothers may need to pump to build up their milk supply or express breast milk by hand if their baby has a heart condition, as the infant might be too breathless or weak to feed directly. When these babies are well enough, they will be able to take milk by nasogastric tube.
These babies can often fully breastfeed eventually – all it takes is a little patience as your child goes through the necessary medical procedures.
Is It Really Worth All the Effort?
Breast milk has a lot of near-magical benefits for all babies, but the list for those with Down syndrome is even longer.
Through the extra skin-to-skin contact, breastfeeding can actually help with your infant’s low muscle tone by providing extra stimulation.
Breast milk helps to protect against infection more than formula does, and babies with Down syndrome have a higher risk of infection than their peers without Down syndrome. Any time you’ve been exposed to a virus, your body will have created antibodies to stop you from getting the virus again in the future. When you breastfeed your child, these antibodies are passed on to your baby.
Stools from breastfed babies are often very soft and easy to pass as breast milk is so easy for them to digest. For infants whose Down syndrome has resulted in bowel problems, this can be very helpful.
For more information about Down’s syndrome, check out The Essential Guide to Down’s Syndrome from Need2Know Books, which explains in straightforward language what exactly Down’s syndrome is, how to accept the diagnosis and move forward, and what support is available should you need it. Your child deserves the best start in life, and you can provide that by getting informed.
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