Picture of baby with down syndrome

We all know breast milk is the best milk for our babies, but how do you breastfeed a baby with disability?


For new mothers of babies with disabilities, breastfeeding can turn into a frustrating experience especially when baby has poor muscle tone or swallowing difficulty.

CHALLENGES asked  sister Ang Chooi Tee, Nurse Manager at a private hospital for some guidelines to help new mothers breastfeed their babies with special needs.


(Q) Breast milk is equally good for infants with disabilities.

Infants with disabilities need the benefits of human milk even more than other babies.

The perfect nutrition and immunological benefits of human milk will keep these special needs infants as healthy as possible, so they are better able to gain weight and be strong for any surgeries or treatment they may need.


(Q) What are the benefits of breastfeeding for infants with disabilities?

It strengthens the immune system.

Antibodies in mother’s milk are transferred to the baby and these put up a strong defense against various diseases. It can help protect the baby from

infections in surgery and help them in the healing process after the surgery.

It can also help prevent the respiratory infections and bowel problems that are common with Down Syndrome:-

-it is nutritious and easily digestible.

Breast milk helps babies with heart problems or cystic fibrosis to gain needed weight.

-it is less irritating to the nasal passages of a baby with a cleft palate than artificial milk.


(Q) Breastfeeding benefits for mother and child.

It provides perfect bonding with mother.

Breastfeeding infants tend to develop a special bond with their mothers due to the close contact with their bodies. Nursing mothers gain a lot of confidence as they look after their babies and breastfeed them.


(Q)How to breast feed infants with special needs?

Often a special need baby is reluctant to suck from the breast, but try to breastfeed the soonest possible. If this is not working, start pumping as soon as possible after birth, every 2 to 3 hours. The expressed breast milk can be given by naso-gastric tube or some other feeding methods, such as, using a nursing cup, syringe or spoon.

Avoid bottle feeding and pacifiers to minimise nipple confusion as it will be harder for baby to take the breast later, when baby is ready to be breastfed.


Different conditions, different needs.


A neurologically impaired baby with too much or too little muscle tone may need extra kind of support while nursing.

A Down Syndrome or premature baby with poorly developed muscles need a lot of physical body support on the head and upper back.


(Q) When can I  start breastfeeding  my child?

As soon as possible after birth.


(Q) How frequent, how long , how much?

On demand by the baby.


(Q) What if the child is on medication or has undergone surgery?

You can continue to breastfeed. If baby is unable to latch directly onto breasts, try to express breast milk and to feed via spoon, syringe or cup.


Useful special gadgets to use include Medela Supplemental Nursing System, Haberman Feeder- a bottle made by Medela for babies with cleft palate; and nipple shield or naso gastric tube.


Step by step guide to breastfeeding

  1. Hold baby close to and facing the mother’s breast.
  2. Brush baby’s lip with nipple to encourage baby to open mouth wide.
  3. Once baby’s mouth is open wide, bring baby to the breast. Baby needs a large mouthful of breast in order to remove milk effectively.
  4. Make sure baby’s gums completely bypass the nipple and cover part of the areola. The baby’s lips should be everted(curled outwards). Press down on baby’s chin to evert lower lip if it hurts when baby is sucking.



Mother should be relaxed and comfortable in a quiet room away from all distractions.

The baby should be calm and not crying.

You may support your breast during a feed to help with the attachment. Make sure your fingers are well away from the areola.

Breastfeeding should not be painful if baby is correctly latched on. If baby is not latched on properly, mother will feel pain when baby is sucking. The mother should break the suction and remove baby from breast by putting in a finger and start again.


Challenges Magazine Vol1 Issue4, 2008  (Challenges Magazine is a journalism skills training project for persons with disabilities started in 2007)