Feeding Your Baby With Down Syndrome

Babies with Down syndrome can be breast or bottle fed like any other child.

Breast feeding a baby with Down syndrome may require patience and perseverance as for a variety of reasons, our babies are sometimes difficult feeders. However, it is possible to breast feed a baby with Down syndrome and the vast majority of those parents who wish to do so manage to breast feed happily and successfully, often without any problems at all.

The fact that your child has Down syndrome does not automatically mean that she cannot breast feed.

Occasionally the baby has health problems which make breast feeding very difficult or impossible initially. If you are in this position and still desire to breast feed you may wish to talk to baby health professionals – eg Nursing Mothers Association to assist you. Some indications from such organisation’s pamphlets for breast feeding follow.

Babies with Down syndrome tend to have low muscle tone. If the baby has low tone in the lips, tongue and cheeks, she may have difficulty getting a tight seal on the nipple and may have a weak suck.

Reflexes may also be weaker than those of other babies, therefore your baby’s rooting and sucking reflex may not be fully developed and may need to be stimulated before a feed. To do this, firstly make sure the baby is awake and alert. Lay baby in your arms and gently stroke their lips, cheeks and tongue. This should make baby pucker and encourages sucking.

If breast feeding, stroke the cheek lying next to your breast to encourage the baby to turn towards the nipple. It may be useful to put a few drops of milk or colostrum on the baby’s lips to get them interested.

You can assist good lip closure around the teat or nipple by rubbing or stroking the cheeks towards the lips and stroking upwards from the chin and downwards from the nose toward the mouth. (This also helps to improve the tone of these muscles). Once the baby is “latched on” you can encourage swallowing by gently stroking under the chin and down the throat.

Also it may be helpful to express a little milk at the start of the feed when flow is at its strongest so that baby isn’t overwhelmed by the milk.

It can be difficult for baby to swallow this initial fast flowing milk and they may be put off feeding. The “hind-milk” has a higher fat content so you don’t need to worry that baby is missing something vital if they don’t get that first “flash flood” of milk.

If you are bottle feeding you may need to experiment with different sorts of teats to see which suits your baby best. Try using an orthodontic teat; they are designed to resemble a nipple, and, providing the flow of milk is not too fast, will encourage baby to suck properly. Proper sucking exercises strengthens facial and oral muscles which are important later on for speech.

If the hole in the teat is too large the milk will flow without baby needing to suck – they simply swallow. Also a too fast flow increases the risk of baby inhaling or choking on the milk. On the other hand, a too small hole will result in an inadequate flow which can frustrate and /or tire baby.

You can check out the range of teats at a pharmacy to see which best suits your baby and experiment with hole size to get the flow right. lf you need advice on appropriate formula for your baby, consult with hospital staff or your paediatrician.

When bottle feeding, remember to never leave your baby with the bottle propped up. Until they are old enough to hold the bottle, always have someone hold the baby and the bottle. Leaving a baby with a bottle propped up is dangerous and could lead lo asphyxiation.

Babies with Down syndrome may tire quickly while feeding (particularly if there are heart or other health problems) so it may be helpful to give small, frequent feeds to start with. If you are breast feeding this will also help to build up and maintain milk supply.

If you decide that you want to breast feed, give it a try and be prepared to persevere. Bear in mind that many other babies are difficult to breast feed – if it doesn’t work out for you don’t feel that you have failed, you’ll find plenty of mothers of babies who don’t have Down syndrome in the same situation. However, don’t be put off by the out-dated notion that your baby can’t be breast fed because they have Down syndrome. The only way to find out if successful breast feeding is possible is by giving it a try and in most cases, it is.

The Australian Breastfeeding Association has an excellent booklet: Breastfeeding a baby with Down syndrome.