Breastfeeding a baby with a heart condition

If your baby has been born with a congenital heart defect, you may be wondering whether it is possible to breastfeed.

The good news is that it certainly is, and your baby will benefit from this. There are so many reasons why breastfeeding is a fantastic option.

Not only will it provide a real closeness between you and your baby, but it’s also excellent nutrition. 

Babies are also far more stable from a cardiovascular point of view when they’re feeding at the breast – which means that their heart rate, pulse, and breathing are more stable, and they tend to utilize oxygen better as well.

We also know from research that breast milk is the perfect food for a human baby, providing an excellent source of nutrition, and packed full of immunoglobulins, which are antibodies that help to fight off infection. 

In the past, when we didn’t have a lot of breastfeeding knowledge, it was considered easier for babies to feed from a bottle if they had a heart defect.

However, we now know that babies coordinate sucking, swallowing, and breathing much easier when breastfeeding. 

Mum and baby in a hospital bed

So if your baby is diagnosed with a heart defect, either while you’re pregnant or just after the birth, you will need to pump your milk because your baby won’t be able to feed straight away.

A hospital-grade pump will help your body to start making the milk that your baby needs.

The sooner you can pump your milk, the better. 

Seek out all the help you can from people around you: midwives, breastfeeding counselors, or lactation specialists who can help you to establish your milk supply.

Pumping every two to three hours for a 10-15 minute session is ideal. If you can pump once a night as well, all the better.

All this pumping will tell your body to start making milk.

Please don’t be discouraged with the amount of the first milk that you get, which is very low volume, colostrum milk.

Colostrum is packed full of antibodies, which is effectively like an immunization for your baby. 

It may be that your baby has been diagnosed with a heart defect when he is a little older, even a few weeks old, and he may not yet have had surgery.

When he has surgery, you will need to pump your milk even if you’ve already established breastfeeding right now.

It will be essential to keep up your supply with the double pumping while your baby is undergoing this procedure.

Please bear in mind that it could be several days to several weeks before you may be able to feed at the breast, after your baby’s surgery.

So what about best positioning for a baby with a heart defect?

Consider laid back biological positions where your baby is slightly more upright – with his head higher than the rest of his body, and well-positioned on your body, where your body, in effect, acts as a mattress.

Your baby’s head will be able to tilt back that little bit more, and this makes it easier for him to swallow and to breathe better.

You can imagine that in these positions, your body acts as a real support for your baby, which will be less tiring for him.

Sleeping baby with mum in a hospital bed

I would also encourage frequent short feeds at the breast.

If you feel that your baby is starting to get very tired and lips are turning blue and looking quite pale, stop the feed at that time.

Later bring your baby to the breast again for another short feed, but keep observing him all the way through.

If you feel that the feeding is not going well, express milk after a feed, this will help to generate more milk, and can be given to your baby as a supplement.

I would also strongly encourage you to learn the technique of breast compression because that is a technique that will help to push more milk out of the breast to your baby, helping him to get more.

If your baby isn’t feeding well, and you do have to express milk, you can provide it via an alternative feeding method. 

It may be that your baby is feeding absolutely fine at the breast and there is no need for those extra supplements.

If you find that the feeding isn’t going well at the moment and you don’t want to offer bottles or other alternative means, consider using an at-breast supplementer. 

A supplementer allows your baby to do all the suckling at the breast, and there will be no other alternative method.

Your baby will then be able to get your milk, but also a supplement as well.

So please be encouraged that every drop of breast milk is good for your baby, and whether you are pumping your milk or feeding at the breast, this is excellent.

Review dates, references & further resources

Review Dates

Version 1.1 published in March 2019. Next review date: Jan 2022


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