Study: Physically Disabled Moms Face Additional Breastfeeding Barriers

Studies show breastfeeding rates are much lower for mothers with disabilities.A new study aims to examine why breastfeeding rates are significantly lower among women with physical disabilities.

Breastfeeding is recognized as the ideal source of nutrition for newborns.  While women with and without physical disabilities give birth at equal rates, studies have found that breastfeeding rates are much lower for mothers with disabilities compared to non-disabled women.

Due to the lack of research surrounding the breastfeeding experiences of women with disabilities, researchers from Brandeis University sought to explore the reasons behind the lower breastfeeding rates among this population of women.

Related: How a Baby Product Company is Helping Parents with Disabilities 

The study, published this month in the Journal of Human Lactation, included 25 women from across the United States who had a disability that impacted their ability to walk or use their arms or hands during pregnancy. The participants had a wide range of disabilities including multiple sclerosis, stroke, cerebral palsy, and spinal cord injuries. The mothers were interviewed over the phone about their breastfeeding experiences.  The interviews were then transcribed and analyzed using content analysis.

Researchers found that the women faced common barriers to when it came to breastfeeding.  Mothers reported a significant lack of support and knowledge from healthcare practitioners around the topic of breastfeeding for women with disabilities. While some women cited a knowledge deficit among lactation consultants, others reported that their doctors were unaware of how their disability would be affected by breastfeeding.

The new mothers also faced physical challenges with breastfeeding, including difficulty getting their babies to latch and difficulties with milk supply related to their conditions. For example, some women had to use breast pumps due to their physical limitations, which caused a decrease in milk supply.  Others experienced concerns around their medication uses and breastfeeding safety.

Related: Daring Dis-abled Parenting 

The mothers also identified several factors that assisted them in breastfeeding their infants.  Some mothers were physically unable to hold their babies or position themselves long enough to breastfeed, and thus some women had success with utilizing a breast pump.

Several of the study participants required the assistance of others, such as their spouses or family members to breastfeed successfully.  For some, this meant that their loved ones would hold or position the babies while they breastfed. Many new moms required help with using a breast pump. A majority of the mothers reported the importance of peer support around the breastfeeding process.

While breastfeeding is highly encouraged in our society, there remains a significant lack of breastfeeding knowledge among healthcare providers who are serving women with disabilities.  Lactation consultants, physicians, and nurses are ill-prepared to provide guidance and support to these new moms.  Further, there needs to be more adaptive equipment, peer support, and personal assistance for women who need it. Disabled or not, starting the breastfeeding conversation early is imperative to its success.

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