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Nursing My Cleft-Affected Baby

Anna M. Tall
Enumclaw WA USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 21 No. 4, July-August 2004, p. 137

The magical moment of birth arrived. Time stood still. My second son was finally here and my husband and I were instantly in love with him.

I planned on nursing our new baby for an extended period of time, as I had done with his brother. However, he was born with a cleft lip and palate and we were in for some extra work. I put him to my breast immediately and he grasped on with such determination. My midwife told me that there would probably be some nursing issues.

At a later visit with our baby's pediatrician, we were told that it is very difficult to breastfeed a baby born with these defects so we were introduced to a special bottle and we also rented a sturdy, hospital-grade pump that became my second partner in the following months.

A week later, at a visit to a Children's Hospital where we met with many experts and doctors, we were told again that these cleft palate-affected babies were not able to successfully breastfeed because of their inability to generate and maintain suction. They only knew of a handful out of thousands of women who had even had partial success. These were sobering words.

Each day I would still put my little baby to my breast for the closeness and bonding. He was able to breastfeed somewhat, but there was not enough strength in his sucking for him to get enough milk. He was fed my milk in bottles at regular feedings.

The hardest times for me were getting up at night to warm my milk to put in a bottle for him. I longed to just breastfeed this little one beside me. It felt so foreign to have to do this, but I was thankful he was still receiving all those good nutrients even though it was by another method.

He gained weight steadily and the doctors were pleased with his progress. At three months old, he had his lip and nose repaired. After our return from the hospital I was sitting down just holding him, and the first thing he did was turn toward me, asking to be nursed. My heart was full! I was able to provide him with that comfort that he so desperately needed.

When he was five months old, our baby started showing a preference for the bottle and seemed to be less interested in the breast. I was still offering him the breast a couple times a day. It was so hard at times and frustrating when he would try to breastfeed but he just couldn't get enough.

I started to worry that he would refuse to breastfeed, so I tried to offer him the breast more frequently and worked on a way that he would be able to latch on better. I would apply pressure to the outside of my areola, holding it between my index and middle finger and squeezing lightly. As long as I held it like that, my little one was able to keep the nipple in his mouth so he could milk it with his gums and get plenty to drink.

When he was about five months old, I offered him a bottle with my milk and he turned his head away and wailed. I immediately offered him the breast and he was instantly consoled! That was the last bottle I offered him.

I continued to pump for several weeks longer because I was anxious that something would go wrong and I would need the milk. Thankfully, we had found a way to overcome our difficulties and became a happy nursing couple. Through this experience, I have found that success cannot be measured by the standard, but by each individual situation. We were successful when we were using the pump and bottles and also when we were nursing exclusively.

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