01 Oct

Breastfeeding with a disability

BfN and National Breastfeeding Helpline supporter Katrona Templeton writes about the unique challenges faced by breastfeeding mothers with disabilities, and the ways that they may be supported to achieve their goals.

  • Can a mother with a thyroid problem feed?
  • Does having a colostomy bag affect feeding?
  • Does an autistic mother need different support and information than a non-autistic mother?

The answer to these questions is yes.

Hi, my name is Katrona, I am a 39 year old mother of two beautiful and very ‘lively’ daughters, aged 3 and 4.  I have been a BfN helper for around three years and recently became a helpline supporter.

I am autistic and also have epilepsy and dyslexia.  It was when I began to look for support and information about breastfeeding with these conditions that I realised that there seemed to be a gap in knowledge in this area.  There is little information when it comes to supporting people with disabilities who wish to breastfeed. 

Many mothers with disabilities and/or long term conditions face unique challenges when breastfeeding. For example:

  • Low milk supply and medication worries for thyroid problems.
  • The practicalities of feeding with a colostomy bag, does it need changing during a feed? Ensuring enough calories are consumed and absorbed by the mother for her baby and her own needs.
  • Dealing with a mother who may have read every article on breastfeeding known to mankind and can bring up obscure facts, but wants to feed even through the sensation of the baby latching and suckling makes her feel as if every inch of her skin is crawling with fire ants.

Disabilities, like mothers, come in many forms. Some difficulties are easily solved: sign posting to drugs in breast milk page; getting creative with positioning; discussing distraction techniques to bring the mother’s focus away from the feeding.

The biggest challenge faced is the resistance from health care professionals to support these mothers, with many seeing formula as the easiest option.  This may be due to time constraints, a lack of general information about how conditions can affect breastfeeding, or concern that breastfeeding will put extra pressure on a mother who, in their eyes, already has enough to cope with, with their own health.

A lot of these mothers are more resilient that they seem at first glance, willing to put up with pain, reducing or temporarily stopping some medicines, constantly dislocating shoulders to name a few.

Breastfeeding can be a lot easier for these mothers than bottle feeding. It’s a lot easier to lift a baby, feed it and go back to sleep, than getting out of bed, into a wheelchair, to kitchen, make up the bottle, feed the baby, get out of wheelchair and back to bed.

For some mothers the mechanics of making up a bottle can be daunting, the ability to even screw on the lid can be a hurdle in itself. Reading the instructions on the tin can be hard or impossible for some, as not many formula tins have Braille on them.   The anxiety of asking yourself questions like, “Have I put the right amount of formula to water in the bottle?”, “Is it too hot or too cold?”, “Has the baby had enough?”, “Is the bottle sterilised?” can be overwhelming for some mothers.

Breastfeeding can have extra advantages for some mothers and babies: staving off flares of Crohn’s disease; reducing the amount of time a baby cries helping with sensory disorders; helping the baby wean off the medication they were exposed to within the womb.

So what can be done to support these mothers and enable them to meet their breastfeeding aims? The most basic help is just listening to them, empathising with their problems, and talking through different ideas and methods to support them – from different positions, to ways of finding others with their condition who may have breastfed before and can give them tips and ideas.

Also helping them to face the reality that, in some cases, they may not be able to meet their breastfeeding goals, and may need to consider combi feeding or formula feeding. Supporting and guiding them through their decisions can be invaluable to the person concerned.

When mothers face these difficulties, breastfeeding will often give a sense of achievement for being able to do something that others thought was impossible. Empowerment from doing what they feel is right for themselves, their child and their family situation. A high percentage of these mothers will still breastfeed until the child naturally weans themselves, after fighting so hard in the first place to establish a breastfeeding relationship.

At the end of the day, mothers with disabilities or long term conditions are just like any other mother who is trying their best for their child. To be there for them, to listen to them and empathise with them is what they need. That and maybe some out of the box thinking.

Katrona runs a Facebook support group for breastfeeding mums with disabilities or long term conditions – click here if you’d like to check it out.