Special Breastfeeding Needs: Cleft Lip or Palate

January 24, 2012

Despite moms’ concerns, breastfeeding a baby with a cleft lip or palate is often possible. Moms working through such special feeding needs should always seek assistance from a lactation consultant, and we recommend referencing our locator to find a professional in your area.

There are some breastfeeding benefits that are particularly important to an infant with a cleft lip or palate. Breast milk helps prevent ear and nasal infections that often occur in infants. Also, because breast milk is a natural substance, it’s less irritating to the mucous membranes that are more exposed in babies with a cleft lip and palate.  Finally, breastfeeding strengthens facial muscles that ultimately support speech development later in life.

When breastfeeding a baby with a cleft lip or palate, it may help if you first understand the challenges you may face:

  • Trouble maintaining a good seal and vacuum
  • Breast milk entering the nasal cavity
  • Increased fatigue while feeding (may not be getting necessary volume or nutrients)
  • Swallowing too much air

Addressing Cleft Lip or Palate Breastfeeding Challenges

Don’t worry – these challenges can be addressed by consulting with a lactation professional to experiment with different feeding positions that give your baby more chin and jaw support, or to guide you in the use of a specialty feeding device.

Try different feeding positions:

  • Upright positions such as a modified football or clutch hold might help. Try using a pillow to tip your baby upright.
  • Your baby sitting on your lap with his or her legs straddling your abdomen.
  • The dancer position with additional jaw and chin support.

Once you find a comfortable position, use your fingertip to draw up some of your breast tissue to close the in the lip to help your baby create a seal. This technique is only effective in babies with a cleft lip. Remember to breastfeed in a calm setting with few distractions. You’ll want your little one to focus during feedings.

Specialty Feeding Devices

If your child still struggles to breastfeed after trying the suggestions above or if your baby has both a cleft lip and palate, or just a cleft palate, a special feeding device may be necessary. Medela offers several products to help moms provide breast milk to their child with special feeding needs. Specialty feeding devices should always be used under the guidance of a lactation professional. The SpecialNeeds Feeder is a unique bottle that doesn’t require suction in order for breast milk to flow. The baby stimulates flow by moving their tongue and jaw. Also, the Supplemental Nursing System (SNS) can be used to encourage the baby to keep trying at the breast. Consider using a Medela breast pump with these feeding devices. Remember, as your baby awaits surgery, their breastfeeding strength will improve. If you have specific questions or concerns about breastfeeding your child with a cleft lip or palate, reach out to a Lactation Consultant for support.

Do you have experience breastfeeding a child with a cleft lip or palate? Share your tips and experiences in the comments below.

7 thoughts on “Special Breastfeeding Needs: Cleft Lip or Palate

  1. It is NOT often possible. It is RARELY possible. Please re-write this article. It is very misleading!! My baby has cleft palate, and we were mislead that he should be able to nurse. So we did, but between his 1 and 2 week checkups he LOST weight despite nursing like crazy. When we got a response from the Children’s hospital cleft palate team, they explained that yes, you can nurse for nurturing reasons, but not for their entire nutritional needs. It is so hard for them that they burn more calories trying suck the milk from the breast (like drinking with a straw with a huge hole in it – hardly effective at all!), than they are able to receive from the little milk they can get.

      • I agree, very misleading. This article gives false hope to moms who desperately want to breastfeed their cleft baby. I’ve heard of babies with cleft lips having great success, but it is rare for babies with a cleft palate.

    • Thank you. My son also has cleft lip & palate, and I was unable to breastfeed despite my exhausting efforts. Articles like this are very misleading & deflating!

  2. My son was born with a cleft lip, although it wasn’t severe he was unable to drink from a bottle. We were lucky to have great support and were able to nurse successfully for a year! We did try the special needers bottle but he just wasn’t a fan. Thanks Medela for all if your support and products!

    • Hi Megan, I’m so happy to hear that you’ve had a good experience with Medela. Great job nursing your little one for a year – you should be very proud of yourself. Thanks for sharing! – Kathy

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