Breastfeeding With a Disability: What You Need to Know

Learn about potential challenges, and get tips for adaptive breastfeeding positions and tools

Health Professional
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Every year, there are about 4 million pregnancies in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 12 percent of American women who are of reproductive age have a disability, and the pregnancy rates among these women are similar to that of women without disabilities. If you are pregnant and have a disability, one of the decisions you will have to make is whether to breastfeed.

Breastfeeding is the healthiest option for most babies and mothers. Women with disabilities are encouraged to breastfeed barring any medical issue that would preclude this as the best option (for example, medications that might not be compatible with breastfeeding). If you do choose to breastfeed, barriers exist, but with some adjustments, it can be done.

Breastfeeding challenges you may face

A small 2018 study of women with disabilities who breastfed showed five main areas of concern for these women:

  • Lack of support for breastfeeding
  • Disability-related health concerns
  • Limited information
  • Difficulties with milk production
  • Difficulties latching

While many of these themes overlap with what other breastfeeding people experience, such as difficulties with latching and milk production, these challenges are often intensified with a disability. Additionally, having a disability can introduce other complications. For example, latching a new baby can be hard for anyone but exacerbated if you have limited motion in your arms or upper body or you are missing your arms.

The good news is that there are things that can be done to support you if you want to breastfeed. And don’t be afraid to ask for what you need, even if you’re not sure what that would look like.

How to get breastfeeding support

In the 2018 study, one thing mothers brought up time and time again was that health professionals didn’t know what to say to people with disabilities opting to breastfeed. Many of the women interviewed felt they were given little information or conflicting information.

Ask your doctor or midwife for a referrals for lactation support from professionals or peer support groups. Support from professionals, such as a lactation consultant, as well as from peer groups, such as La Leche League, can be helpful, even when the referral isn’t disability-specific. Peer support can be critical to many breastfeeding issues and solutions because many problems be universal to breastfeeding parents. So be sure to find your tribe, whether in person, online, or both.

Use adaptive positioning and equipment for breastfeeding

One thing mothers in the 2018 study recommended was trying alternative positions for nursing. For example, some people felt they had better control over the baby and breastfeeding when lying down as opposed to sitting up. Don’t be afraid to make up positions, rather than just relying on what you see in books and on websites. You may also need to be creative with the use of breastfeeding and regular pillows. These can help the baby be secure and get a better latch.

In addition to pillows to support your arms and/or upper body, sometimes you need help supporting your breasts. This may be more necessary if you have larger breasts. One thing that can be very helpful is to put a rolled-up towel underneath your breasts for support. You can increase and decrease the thickness of the towel by rolling it more or less tightly.

Make friends with a breast pump

Breast pumps are a near-ubiquitous part of breastfeeding for many parents. One might be prescribed to help you increase your milk supply or to help you facilitate better milk production, or you may choose to use one to help you provide breast milk to your baby without breastfeeding, for whatever reason.

Another piece of adaptive equipment to consider is a hands-free pumping bra. This can be helpful and less tiring if you are pumping.

You may also consider items like the Supplemental Nursing System (SNS) if you’re having issues with low supply. The SNS allows you to deliver breast milk or formula to your baby and stimulates your breasts to produce milk. There are also specialty bottles available for providing pumped milk that may be more helpful for you.

Consider hands-on support from others

If you have a disability that requires you to need physical support from others, you’re sure to find people who are supportive of your efforts to breastfeed when possible. This will help your team work toward solutions for you to find what works for you and your family. This support might include things like bringing the baby to you or holding the baby while you breastfeed. It might be assistance with your pump or other equipment. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Medication and breastfeeding

One big issue for you may be medications and breastfeeding. Be sure to talk to your providers about medications you are taking and whether they are safe to take while nursing. You may find that there are minimal risks to the medications, or some medications may not be recommended. Either way, be sure your team is using a reputable source, as this is a very specialized field of lactation science and many people are ignorant about breastfeeding and medication interaction. The Infant Risk Center is a great place to start.

Overall, the news is positive: You have many reasons to breastfeed and many options to make it work for you. Don’t be afraid to try new things, even if you’re not seeing it in breastfeeding books. Surround yourself with a supportive team, both personally and professionally, and consider tools like a breast pump or special pillow to increase your comfort, particularly as your baby grows and may be more difficult to handle.