When your baby is born with a cleft palate, breastfeeding them can seem like a huge challenge. A cleft palate and a cleft lip occur when a baby’s mouth or lip doesn’t form completely during pregnancy, and both may seem intimidating at first. But you likely can breastfeed a baby with a cleft palate or a cleft lip, and the experience may not be as difficult as you think.
A cleft lip forms when the tissue that makes up the lip does not join completely before birth, resulting in an opening in the upper lip. This can be a small slit or a large opening that goes from the lip to the nose. A cleft palate happens when the tissue that makes up the roof of the mouth does not join together completely during pregnancy, and the palate can be open both front and back or just partly. Babies with cleft lips often also have cleft palates.
While surgery to adjust a cleft lip or cleft palate is a possibility and should be done within the first few months of their lives, it won’t be done the second your baby is born. So, if you want to breastfeed, you will have to learn how to breastfeed a baby with a cleft palate or cleft lip.
How to breastfeed babies with a cleft lipdo babies feed with a cleft lip?
Don’t let anyone make you think you’ll need to automatically reach for formula and bottles if your baby is born with a cleft lip or palate and you have your heart set on nursing. “Do not assume that the baby cannot breastfeed because of the cleft lip,” Leigh Anne O’Connor, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator, tells Romper. “When a baby has a cleft lip, breastfeeding is possible and in many cases easier than a bottle as the breast fills the baby’s mouth and forms a better seal than a bottle does.”
Babies with cleft lips should be able to feed normally, although you might find that you need to position the nipple differently. “Be sure both baby and parent are comfortable,” O’Connor suggests. “Work with a [lactation consultant] or other skilled health care professional with breastfeeding knowledge to make sure the baby is gaining weight effectively.”
The best breastfeeding positions for cleft lips
Babies with cleft lips should be able to use any breastfeeding position. “Any hold where both parent and baby are comfortable and the baby is super close to the parent’s body is best,” O’Connor tells Romper. “That can be cradle hold or football or even side-lying.”
Whatever position you choose, try pointing the cleft lip toward the top of the breast, and try plugging the cleft with your finger to help narrow the gap and improve the seal and suction. O’Connor notes that you really want to make sure the breast is fully in the baby’s mouth and a seal is formed so that the baby can feed.
How to breastfeed babies with a cleft palate
If the baby has a cleft palate, breastfeeding might be a little more difficult. Babies with cleft palates have an opening in the roof of their mouth, between the mouth and nose, and that makes it difficult to get the suction necessary to get milk out of a breast or even a bottle. Babies with cleft palates may have more of a struggle breastfeeding and might require a special bottle made with cleft palates in mind.
The best breastfeeding positions for cleft palates
You can try breastfeeding a baby with a cleft palate, but it’s recommended to also feed them expressed milk afterward. This is because babies with cleft palates can have trouble nursing, and they might not be able to transfer enough milk on their own. Feeding them expressed breast milk that you’ve pumped is a way to ensure they are getting enough food and gaining enough weight. When nursing, try breastfeeding positions that keep the baby upright and as close to you as possible, like a modified football hold where they are straddling your leg. You should also support their chin and jaw with your hand to stabilize the jaw and help with suction.
The best bottles if your baby has a cleft palate
There are bottles made for babies specifically with cleft palates to make it easier for them to feed. O’Connor recommends the Medela Special Needs Feeder or the Pigeon bottle, but here are a few that are worth checking out.
Feeding a baby with a cleft lip or a cleft palate can be a little bit of an adjustment, but breastfeeding can still be a rewarding experience when you follow the above tips, work with a lactation consultant, and pay attention to your baby’s specific needs and behaviors.
Leigh Anne O’Connor, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator