nursing down syndrome


nicole starr photography-42.jpg

When you see the photos of Rory and his mom, Timna, from our breastfeeding photo shoot you can’t help but notice how much fun they are both having. They clearly delight in their relationship with each other and the happiness is palpable. You would never imagine that these two had a very difficult start.

Rory was born right on time, a much-anticipated younger brother. His family was surprised to find out that the doctors believed that he might have Down syndrome (DS). Timna had decided against prenatal testing for personal reasons. She understood that DS was a possibility but she never thought it would happen to her. Thankfully Rory did not have any heart issues and did not need to be admitted to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). He was able to try to latch and nurse right after he was born. He had some early breastfeeding success but then he became sleepy and started having problems keeping his oxygen saturation and heart rate up. He was moved quickly from his mother’s bedside to the Special Care Unit (SCU). Timna, who had successfully breastfed her older son, found it very challenging to try to nurse Rory amidst the confines of the SCU. She was not able to try a side-lying position, which is often very helpful for children with Down syndrome. She also found trying to initiate a breastfeeding relationship while managing the oxygen, wires, and monitors that he was attached to very difficult.

                  Rory was in the SCU for 12 days. During that time Timna pumped and gave him expressed breast milk with a bottle, knowing that initiating and protecting her milk supply was the only path toward a successful breastfeeding relationship. She felt pressure for Rory to consume enough calories so that he would get bigger and stronger, which the doctors told her was the only way that he would manage to keep his oxygen saturation up and go home. All babies have a “car seat” test before they are cleared to leave the SCU. This is a test where the baby is placed in a car seat for approximately one hour while they are monitored. In order to pass this test their oxygen saturation above a certain percentage. Rory did not pass but his family took him home in a car bed, which he had to use every time he was in the car, for several weeks. 

When Timna and Rory got home they continued to have several breastfeeding challenges. Rory would have a difficult time latching and even if he did latch he would fall asleep while nursing or would be too tired to nurse after a few minutes. Ten minutes later he would be hungry again so Timna had to supplement with bottles of breast milk. At around four weeks old Rory seemed to start really hate to nurse. He would scream and cry every time she tried to put him to the breast, and he often refused to latch. She thinks that he realized that the bottle was easier and began to prefer it. She began giving him a few ounces of milk by bottle, to take away the edge of being so hungry, and then would nurse afterward when he was more able to focus. As with many babies with Down syndrome, Rory had a difficult time nursing and breathing and so, in the beginning especially, Timna had to be very careful with positioning him in such a way that it was easy for him to be able to do both.  They also used a breast shield to help make latching and staying latched, easier.

                  Timna pumped 5 or 6 times a day to provide enough breast milk for Rory. At first, she attempted to nurse him at every feeding session but eventually pumping, feeding, and nursing became too much and she would just give him a bottle of breast milk. Sometimes she would go a whole day without attempting to nurse Rory and she was becoming more and more discouraged that they were losing their opportunity to develop a nursing relationship. She had a lactation consultant come to the house, which she found extremely helpful and supportive. The lactation consultant was very encouraging but mentioned to Timna that perhaps the pumping, bottle feeding, breastfeeding routine was having an effect on her mental health. Timna knew that she could stop pumping, and sometimes wanted to, but describes feeling a determination to make it work, despite wanting to throw her pump out of a window! Her lactation consultant gave her several good tips, including not spending too much time trying to position and latch. She suggested that Timna try to approach breastfeeding Rory very casually, allowing him to initiate. This can be extremely difficult for mothers who are so invested in trying to make their breastfeeding relationship work but Timna reports that’s ultimately what happened with her and Rory. One day, when he was about three months old, “We were in bed, and I put him next to me and was very calm about it. He didn’t completely crawl over and do it on his own, but he just had his head there and he was the one who was initiating and turned his head to do it and it finally worked really well.” She let him nurse without the nipple shield and realized that his mouth had developed in such a way that he was strong enough to nurse without it. Within a few days, they had left not only the nipple shield but also the pumping and bottles completely behind!  

When you’ve established a breastfeeding relationship with your child, it’s easy to look back and think that it was inevitable but, for many, there are dark and depressing moments, where giving up seems like the only reasonable option. Timna says, “definitely a few weeks into being at home and trying to nurse Rory and exclusively pumping, things went from ok, to worse and worse. The nursing sessions got more and more challenging. I had plenty of moments where I thought we were never going to get there, and I‘m just going to have to exclusively pump indefinitely, and it’s exhausting. I had my days when I started to lose hope, and I didn’t think we were ever going to get there, and this was our reality.” She was worried about what she would do when she had to go back to work. She knew that she could not exclusively pump and work, it just was not manageable for her. To help keep her sanity she set a goal. If Rory was not able to breastfeeding by five months old, she would stop trying. She reports feeling surprised and relieved when he was finally able to nurse. “I didn’t know he had it in him,” she says. When asked what guidance she has for other mothers she suggests having a supportive lactation consultant come to their home and says, “I think I was under the impression there was some kind of window, for all babies. Like, if they haven’t figured out nursing between 6 or 8 weeks, they probably won’t ever figure it out, and I guess that’s not true. I wish someone had told me it was possible that he could learn to breastfeed much later. It might have taken some of the pressure off.”        

Even though Timna’s journey to breastfeeding Rory was extremely difficult for her and she often wanted to stop pumping she continued because she really wanted to have a breastfeeding relationship with Rory, as she had had with her older son. She talks about the hours she spent, frustratingly trying to get her little nursling to breastfeed properly. She admits that sometimes they both ended up in tears. But the joy and relief she felt when they finally nursed well together was such a blessing, it solidified their bond and brought them even closer together. Rory became such a huge fan of nursing, by 4 months old you would never have known he had struggled in the beginning. In retrospect, after having nursed Rory until he was 22 months old she says that all of the difficulties were worth it.

Aimee & Cate
Michele & Harper
Cristina & Mae
Beth & Rian
Shu & Lewis



This is the last in a three-part series on preparing to breastfeed your baby with Down syndrome, written specifically for women with a prenatal diagnosis by Jill Rabin, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and Pediatric Speech Pathologist. Read the first part and the second part. 

Congratulations, it’s time to take your baby home. What an exciting time for your new family! If breastfeeding did not work out quite as planned in the hospital, you may need continued lactation support at home. Many International Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLC) can make home visits to assist your baby in transferring to the breast. Your hospital’s lactation consultant or moms in your local Down syndrome (DS) community can often recommend someone experienced in working with babies with special feeding needs. 

If milk intake and weight gain were the primary concerns while your baby was in the hospital, you might be feeling nervous about breastfeeding, worrying that your child is not getting enough to eat. Frequent weight checks are sometimes recommended in the first few days and weeks after discharge to confirm that your baby is receiving enough milk to gain weight and thrive. There are a variety of reasons that babies with Down syndrome may need to be supplemented with a bottle (with fortified breast milk or formula depending on his or her needs) after breastfeeding. Weighted feedings, when a baby is weighed before and after a nursing session, can help you and your lactation consultant determine if this is necessary for your baby. Weighted feeds are also a great way to see the progress that your baby is making from week to week and can prevent you from over-supplementing. You can also do weighted breastfeeding at home, by buying or renting your own scale. In addition to the scale, there are many breastfeeding smartphone apps, which track your baby’s feedings, as well as the number of wet and dirty diapers. These records will reassure you and your baby’s medical team that your baby is indeed taking in enough breast milk. We understand that doing weighted feeds at home may seem overwhelming to you. If so, that’s okay! Tracking the number of wet and dirty diapers should be enough for most babies.

Use of feeding equipment, such as a nipple shield or a supplemental nursing system (SNS) may be recommended by your lactation consultant to help get your baby to the breast. A nipple shield is a circular piece of silicone that goes over your nipple and may make latching to the nipple and sustaining a sucking pattern easier. A SNS is a thin plastic tubing system. One end is taped to your breast and the other is attached to a bottle of your pumped milk. The SNS allows your baby’s sucking efforts, which may initially be weak or ineffective, to be rewarded with milk. The SNS also helps your baby establish appropriate suckling motions and encourages bonding. It has the added benefit of forming an association between being at the breast and having a full belly. Use of both the nipple shield and the SNS is often short term but can be vital in making the transition to breastfeeding exclusively. Even if your baby has a nasogastric tube or a G-tube in place, they can practice suckling at the breast. Skin-to-skin contact or “kangaroo” care, paired with suckling at the breast with or without the SNS may increase your milk supply and “set the stage” for breastfeeding until your baby becomes strong enough to start transferring milk effectively. “Babywearing” is an easy way to have skin-to-skin contact. Several types of carriers allow you to hold baby snugly against your bare skin while having your hands free. Babies usually love being carried close to their mother’s bodies and it can be a simple and easy way to soothe and snuggle your baby. Baby Wearing International is an excellent resource and they have meetings in several locations worldwide. They even have scholarships to encourage mothers of children with special needs to wear their babies. 

Babies with Down syndrome usually have low muscle tone and have to work harder to maintain their bodies in position to breastfeed. A good chair and a supportive pillow or a baby carrier to help position your baby will reduce the work your baby has to do to feed and will free up energy for oral motor muscles to engage in latching and suckling. Correct positioning helps the baby to latch onto the breast better and encourages optimal milk transfer. Many mothers find side-lying nursing to be a very helpful position for nursing their babies with DS. Also, if your child has torticollis or lip or tongue ties he or she might not be able to compensate as effectively for them as other children due to the low muscle tone. It is essential that any ties are reversed and torticollis resolved to allow your baby to breastfeed. This is where you, again, may have to advocate for your baby. Some medical professionals still believe that babies with DS cannot breastfeed and will not do a thorough assessment to verify that all reversible issues are discovered and corrected. If your baby is having a difficult time nursing and no one on your medical team mentions assessing your baby for these issues, please ask them to do so.

While working to transition your baby to the breast, you will have to pump to establish and maintain your milk supply. This issue will be addressed more fully in a future article but you can also find valuable information in our 2nd article in this series and in our brochure, Nursing Down Syndrome: A Short Guide to Breastfeeding Your Baby. It can be a challenge to establish your supply when your baby is not able to directly nurse or with a baby with a weak or ineffective suck. If needed, you can talk to your lactation consultant about dietary and natural ways to enhance milk production. It is important to remember that these methods do not work in isolation and still require frequent and consistent pumping with an electric breast pump. It may be useful to ask your local DS organization or medical program if there are moms in your area who would be willing to support you through this process. There are also many social media sites that can also provide support and encouragement, although it’s good to remember that every feeding case is different and these are often moms and not medical professionals giving advice.

You may require ongoing support from the lactation consultant and speech pathologist, but with time and patience most babies with Down syndrome can successfully transition to breastfeeding. In addition to working with these feeding specialists, it is important to work on “tummy time” with your baby. Often when mothers have feeding difficulties with their babies, they have less time to practice placing their babies in a prone position or on their tummy. However, frequent tummy time exposure is critical and will help improve their trunk and shoulder strength, which in turn, results in improved jaw and tongue function for feeding. You can even practice skin-to-skin contact and tummy time at the same time by lying on your back and having the baby on your belly or chest. Hold onto your baby securely and talk or sing to him or her. Often babies will lift their heads to see their mommy’s face, helping them develop head control, and making them stronger, as described above.

It is important to contact your local early intervention (EI) program as soon as you return home. Your pediatrician can make a referral if one wasn’t made while your baby was in the hospital. You should arrange a developmental assessment with an early intervention team as early as possible. This team should include, but is not limited to, a developmental therapist, speech pathologist, and physical therapist. Occupational therapists and dieticians may be needed as well. It is important to have these evaluations take place right away to assist your baby in developing to his or her full potential and to provide you with ideas for positioning, playing, and feeding. They will instruct you on how to do “tummy Time” with your baby as this will have a positive impact on your baby’s development and feeding skills, as previously mentioned.

Possible medical complications, such as heart and respiratory issues, prematurity, low tone, and excessive sleepiness, can make the initiation of breastfeeding difficult. It is possible that you may need to pump for an extended period of time until your baby can successfully transition to the breast or if, for some reason, your baby is not discharged from the hospital at the same time as you. Sometimes babies with DS are not fully able to breastfeed exclusively until they are three to four months of age. Maintaining your milk supply is the key to ensuring that transition to breastfeeding is possible when your baby is ready. This is often best done by pumping frequently with a hospital-grade breast pump. You may need to continue pumping eight to twelve times a day if you are exclusively pumping. Pumping after each nursing session is important if your baby is still not strong enough to fully empty your breasts. Your baby may initially have difficulty transferring sufficient milk from the breast due to fatigue, low tone, or weak sucking reflex. For these reasons, in addition to medical complications, babies with DS often require bottle feedings of expressed breast milk to receive the necessary daily calories, at least until they get strong enough to nurse efficiently. One thing that may reassure you is that babies with Down syndrome don’t appear to have as much difficulty transitioning to the breast after receiving bottle feedings as other children. There also doesn’t seem to be a “magic window” for children with Down syndrome to learn to breastfeed and most tend to “get it” within the first few months.

The key to breastfeeding your baby with Down syndrome is being prepared and understanding the obstacles that you may encounter. You may need to strongly advocate for your baby as there are still health care professionals who are unaware that most babies with DS can successfully breastfeed. Surrounding yourself with knowledgeable health care professionals and a strong support network will generate positive results for you and your baby. Breastfeeding is not only possible for your baby with Down syndrome but is an important and therapeutic starting point for them. With the countless benefits of breast milk for your baby, in addition to the oral structural changes that can result from the act of breastfeeding, you are getting your baby off to a great start. While it may take them a little longer to transition to exclusive breastfeeding, and possibly require a little more intervention from professionals, it is definitely an attainable goal!

Read the rest of the series!


Photo courtesy of  Nicole Starr. 

Photo courtesy of Nicole Starr. 

This is the fourth in a series of eleven breastfeeding superstars that we will feature in the coming weeks. Links to the others are at the end of this article. 

Welcome Beth and Rian to our latest edition of Breastfeeding Superstars! At five months old, Rian was the youngest participant of our photo shoot, which took place in June. Even at that young age, he had overcome a pile of medical challenges, including congestive heart failure at two months and open-heart surgery to repair a complete atrioventricular canal (CAVC) defect at three months old. Despite his challenges, he and his mother worked together to build a successful breastfeeding relationship.

Beth has two older boys who she breastfed successfully. Armed with previous experience and knowledge, she was confident she would be able to breastfeed Rian as well. With support from a lactation consultant at UMass Memorial Hospital, Rian was able to latch on to the breast and start nursing right from the start. The two were discharged home from the hospital when he was four days old and they continued to have a successful breastfeeding relationship for several weeks.

However, at five weeks old, Rian’s doctors determined that he was not gaining weight at the rate he needed for his upcoming heart surgery. Beth began to exclusively pump at that point in order to give Rian fortified breast milk by bottle, a common way to provide extra calories, in the hopes that he would be big and strong enough to come through heart surgery optimally. Beth attempted to keep their nursing relationship alive by putting him to the breast after each of his bottle feeds but Rian fairly quickly went into heart failure and was unable to stay awake even though his bottle feeding. Nursing became a rarity, much to Beth’s disappointment. She was committed to pumping and feeding Rian fortified breast milk with the hope that they could continue a normal nursing relationship after Rian’s heart surgery.

At three months old, Rian had heart surgery to repair his CAVC defect repair. An AV canal defect is a large hole in center of the heart, affecting all four chambers and making it impossible for the heart to pump efficiently. When the heart functions normally, it pumps oxygen-rich blood from the lungs to the rest of the body and oxygen-poor blood from the body to the lungs in order to “refuel”. However, a CAVC defect allows the oxygen-poor and oxygen-rich blood to mix so the body never becomes fully oxygenated. It also allows a larger volume of blood into the right side of the heart, placing pressure on both the heart and the lungs. Untreated, this disease can lead to both heart failure and lung failure. In general this heart repair needs to happen within the first six months of the baby’s life in order to prevent permanent damage and to save the baby’s life. Ideally, the baby will grow well and the heart will be a good size for surgery. However, this is difficult due to the combination of heart failure making the baby quite sleepy with poor endurance and the heart and lungs taking up excessive amounts of energy and calories attempting to keep up with increased blood supply. 

As you may begin to understand, it was critical to Beth to help Rian gain as much weight as possible as quickly as possible before his heart surgery. However, he was struggling to breathe and even drinking a few ounces of milk was a challenged. Beth recalls felling extreme anxiety and stress during this time. Rian’s feeding and breathing issues were getting worse every day and she was concerned that he would require surgery before he was physically strong enough. A few of days before his scheduled surgery, Rian completely refused his bottles and, out of desperation, Beth attempted to nurse him. It worked and Rian picked up where he had left off like he had never stopped nursing. Beth’s relief was palpable. She had been craving the closeness and bond of nursing with her sweet boy before handing him over for open-heart surgery, and she was grateful that she got her wish.

Beth continued to pump throughout Rian’s recovery so that he would have her milk to drink as soon as he was well enough. He did so well with pumped milk that doctors gave Beth the all-clear to begin nursing him. Much to Beth’s relief, he did an amazing job. Now, three months later, Beth and Rian are still nursing and have never looked back. “Every time I nurse Rian I get to look into his eyes and he’ll look back, sometimes giving me a big smile. I love the way he wraps his little fingers around my thumb and holds on, creating memories for me that will last a lifetime."

Aimee & Cate
Michele & Harper
Cristina & Mae



This is the second in a three part series on preparing to breastfeed your baby with Down syndrome, written specifically for women with a prenatal diagnosis by Jill Rabin, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and Pediatric Speech Pathologist. Read the first part here

How do I manage breastfeeding once my baby is born?

Congratulations! The moment you’ve been waiting for is finally here and you’ve had your baby! If you’ve had a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome you’ve likely done all of the research you could think of. You may be a bit nervous about your baby and if he or she will be healthy or will need extra special attention. Maybe you wonder if he or she will need to be in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). If you want to breastfeed you are probably wondering if you will be able to try to latch your new baby right away. Well, much of what will transpire in the next 24 hours will be contingent on your baby’s medical condition when they are born. It is now time to use the knowledge you have acquired prenatally to determine what needs to be done to facilitate a successful transition to breastfeeding. One of the most important things that you can do to ensure the best possible chance of breastfeeding for your baby is to communicate your intentions to your medical team. This way you can build support and encouragement right from the start.

We think it is important to note that there is an “ideal” way to initiate breastfeeding and there is the “real” way. For babies with Down syndrome we often have to go with the flow and work within the framework of what we have. Sometimes our babies are medically complex or sometimes mom or baby have other challenges that need to be managed right away and breastfeeding takes a backseat. That is why it is so important to have a plan from the start so that your intentions don't get lost. Just remember, as long as you are pumping to establish and maintain your supply you have the basis for a breastfeeding relationship. Now, let’s get down to details!

Once your baby is born, if possible, you want to latch him or her onto the breast right away.  This allows for early imprinting which makes each successive feeding attempt easier. If possible, request that the hospital staff delay giving your baby a bath as there is new research out that suggests delaying infant’s first bath for first 8-24 hours improves maternal-infant bonding and encourages breastfeeding. If for any reason, your baby can’t get to the breast after birth, you need to start pumping as soon as possible, ideally within six hours, to establish a milk supply. This is absolutely key to protecting the possibility of a successful breastfeeding relationship in the future. Your baby may or may not be able to suckle directly right away. Some babies are not able to even attempt to breastfeed for hours or days. As long as you protect your supply by pumping you have the possibility of transitioning baby to the breast. Sometimes hand expression of colostrum, which this video demonstrates well, can be more effective than pumping in the first 24 to 48 hours. You can have the hospital’s International Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLC) assist you. If your baby is unable to latch right away for any reason, request help immediately from a hospital lactation consultant so she can assess the situation early on and better help you to get your baby to the breast.  Early identification and intervention of issues can make a huge difference in establishing breastfeeding.  For babies with Down syndrome, there may be pressing medical concerns that prevent skin-to-skin contact but many moms are so overwhelmed right after birth that they don’t even ask. It never hurts to put in a respectful request to have even a moment or two of skin-to-skin contact with your baby, which will help promote bonding. This should be possible for many babies, even with the diagnosis of Down syndrome.

The lactation consultant may utilize a variety of different devices that can help to facilitate breastfeeding. One of these devices is a nipple shield. This is a flexible silicone shield that goes directly over the mom’s nipple. It can help babies with low muscle tone to better latch on to the breast and sustain a sucking pattern. It is often only needed for a short period of time and the baby can eventually be weaned from using it. Your lactation consultant may also suggest trying a supplemental nursing system (SNS), which is a thin plastic tubing system. One end is taped to your breast and the other is attached to a bottle of your pumped milk. The SNS allows your baby's sucking efforts, which may initially be weak or ineffective, to be rewarded with mom's milk. It has the added benefit of forming an association between being at the breast and having a full belly. It also helps your baby establish the appropriate suckling motions and encourages bonding. Use of this equipment is often short term but can be vital in making the transition to exclusive breastfeeding. 

It is often important for medical professionals to closely monitor your baby’s intake and output. This may seem incompatible with breastfeeding and some moms agree to bottle-feeding to satisfy the desire to ensure baby is getting enough so he or she can be cleared to go home. However, that is not the only option! You can request weighted feeds, where you weigh your baby with a digital scale before and after a breastfeeding session to estimate how many ounces he or she has consumed. Even if, for some reason, your baby is required to take nutrition from a bottle (or an NG tube) it does not mean that you will never have a successful breastfeeding relationship. You can still attempt to breastfeed while your baby is receiving nutrition from an NG tube, allowing for practice of appropriate suckling and to associate the breast with a full belly. It is important to advocate for your baby and your breastfeeding relationship but sometimes medical concerns take precedence. It may provide comfort to know that babies with Down syndrome sometimes hit bumps in the road to breastfeeding and many go on to overcome them. 

In addition to the lactation consultant, if your baby has initial issues with feeding while in the hospital, a speech pathologist may get involved to help with the transition to oral feedings. The addition of a speech pathologist can be vital to ensuring that your baby is successful with oral feedings. However, while there are many speech pathologists who are experts in feeding and swallowing, they do not always have a lot of knowledge or experience with assisting breastfeeding babies. Therefore, it is essential that the lactation consultant and speech pathologist collaborate using a team approach to get your baby to the breast.  

More on transitioning to home in the third installment of this series but it is important to work closely with the hospital IBCLCs to develop a feeding plan that includes weight checks to determine milk transfer and if the use of breastfeeding equipment like a nipple shield is required. Also, request a recommendation from the IBCLC for a referral to a professional that can follow you at home if continued support and intervention is necessary. They can also assist you in locating where you can rent a digital scale for home use if your baby is not gaining weight adequately. 

Remember first and foremost that early assistance from a qualified professional can help guide you on this journey. Planning, professional support, and knowledge about how to manage breastfeeding obstacles will help make the transition to breastfeeding a reality. And, we are here to support and encourage you along the way! We would love to hear about your breastfeeding successes and struggles.

See our resources page for further information on where to get help.

Read the rest of the series!


Meet Cate, Harper, and Mighty Mae our "Three of Hearts." These little girls were all born within three days of each other and were all at Boston Children's Hospital for open heart surgery at the same time! When they met for the first time at our photo shoot to encourage breastfeeding among mothers of babies with Down syndrome we were surprised to hear that they were in the same hospital at the same time having the same surgery but they never met each other. When their families told us what they'd endured and how relieved they were to celebrate their 1st birthdays a few days later, we knew we had to celebrate big! A triple cake smash, the set laden with hearts, was photographer Nicole Starr's idea. The girls are showing off their scars to let everyone know what a heart warrior looks like. 

As many as 50% of babies with Down syndrome are born with congenital heart defects. Not all of those defects will need to be repaired but a large percentage of them need surgical intervention and they are always harrowing for the parents. Unfortunately, not all babies who have this surgery make it to their first birthdays and for those that do, their parents breathe a huge sigh of relief and often plan a big party to celebrate! These girls were no different and we are happy to say they are healthy and thriving today!  

Aimee & Cate
Michele & Harper
Cristina & Mae


Nursing Down Syndrome

"I had heard from my pediatrician that breastfeeding might not happen"
"A lot of doctors told me I couldn't do it"
"We're never going to get there"
"It was devastating to me"
These moms and babies faced health challenges, sometimes discouragement from the medical community, and their own self-doubt but they were able to eventually nurse their babies with Down syndrome successfully. Just in time for World Breastfeeding Week, August 1-7, these moms have come together with a powerful message: babies with Down syndrome CAN breastfeed. Listen to their moving stories and learn how they persevered through NICU stays, hospitalization, illnesses, surgeries, leukemia, heart failure, and more to breastfeed their babies.

From Ella Gray Cullen, our Executive Director, “ one should ever be told that she shouldn’t even bother to breastfeed her baby just because of a diagnosis of Down syndrome and for those who want to attempt breastfeeding but just need support or encouragement, we are here for them.”

To learn more about our project visit

Thank you to the moms who participated in this project and to our many individual donors and The Daylily Connection for their generous support and to Spectra Baby USA-Breastfeeding Products and Lansinoh USA for their corporate sponsorship. Without them, this project would never have been possible. 

Lansinoh logo.


Photo courtesy of  Nicole Starr Photography

Photo courtesy of Nicole Starr Photography

The first thing you notice about this week’s breastfeeding Superstar is her thick auburn hair that calls to mind a movie star from the 40s. Meet Mighty Mae and her mom, Cristina. Mae’s easy smile lights up her face and makes everyone’s day a little brighter. You would never imagine what she has battled, and won, to get to where she is today.

Mae was born full term and was a hearty 9 pounds. She spent the first 5 weeks of her life in the neonatal intensive care unit at Saint Elizabeth’s Medical Center and then an additional 5 weeks at Boston Children’s Hospital. She was born with several congenital heart issues, including atrial and ventricle septal defects and a Patent Ductus Arteriosus. She had her VSD/ASD/PDA repair at six weeks old but the surgery was complicated by a complete heart block. A heart block is a condition where the electrical impulses that normally instruct a heart to beat are either partially or totally blocked and so the heart beats too slowly. This can be a life-threatening condition and required another surgery to implant a permanent pacemaker. The device is the same size for adults and babies so, due to limited space near a baby’s heart, the implement is actually in Mae’s belly. It’s a palpable and very concrete reminder of all she has been through. Mae also struggled with pulmonary hypertension, which is high blood pressure in the lungs and can lead to right-sided heart failure. At seven months she had a third heart surgery to repair her mitral and tricuspid valves.

After Mae’s initial 10-week hospitalization she was in and out of the hospital several more times and spent a total of 134 days as an inpatient in the first year of her life. Throughout it all Cristina provided Mae her milk, at first directly at the breast, then through a supplemental nursing system (SNS), and then fortified with formula through a nasogastric (NG) tube. Like many babies with Down syndrome, Mae latched and nursed well right away after birth, actually managing breastfeeding more easily than taking breast milk from a bottle, but she struggled to have enough energy to gain the weight that she needed prior to her first surgery. The NG tube allowed Mae to receive the nutrients she needed without expending the effort that would have been required to nurse or bottle feed.

After Mae’s first heart surgery, at six weeks, she struggled to re-learn how to breastfeed. Her mother worked with lactation consultants in the hospital and outside of the hospital to help Mae relearn the skills she needed to nurse successfully. Mae did better with nursing than with a bottle so Cristina persisted. She describes a particularly emotional weekend where Mae’s medical team approved a trial of breastfeeding only, to see how she would do. It was over Labor Day weekend and Cristina describes it as “an absolute labor of love”. She nursed Mae every 3 hours, around the clock for 3 days. She used something called a supplemental nursing system (SNS), which is essentially a flexible tube taped to your breast with the other end in a small bottle of milk. The idea is that the baby does not have to work as hard to get the milk and it creates a positive feedback loop that encourages them to keep going. Eventually, as they get stronger, they wean off of the SNS and they are just direct nursing. Cristina would pump before she nursed in order to induce let down and she would get rid of her foremilk, leaving the calorie-dense hindmilk for Mae. Unfortunately, after 3 days, she had to admit that Mae was not ready to get all of her calories from direct nursing as she was not able to sustain her weight. The medical team reinserted her NG tube. This was difficult for Cristina to admit but she knew that she had to do what was best for Mae and she believed that Mae would eventually be strong enough. Unlike Aimee and Cate, our previous breastfeeding superstars, Cristina does not have an ah-ha! moment when Mae was suddenly able to nurse. Her journey to nursing exclusively was more subtle. After Mae returned home from the hospital she was breastfeeding and then Cristina would supplement her efforts with fortified breast milk through her NG tube. Gradually, over time, Mae needed less and less supplementation until they were finally able to remove the NG tube and Mae could nurse exclusively.    

Cristina nursed her older daughter for a full year and was committed to doing no less than that for Mae. She had the help of several lactation consultants at Boston Children’s Hospital. She also went to a “mommy and me” breastfeeding support group that she had attended when she was breastfeeding her older daughter. This level of continuous support and encouragement helped her feel that she and Mae would eventually be successful. She thinks it is equally as important for any child to breastfeed and sights the bonding time and the antibodies Mae received through her milk as her two most motivating factors. She is proud to have overcome the hurdles that she and Mae faced to develop their breastfeeding relationship and believe that it was worth it for her to persist. Cristina encourages new moms to try breastfeeding their babies with Down syndrome. “It is possible!” she says, “It might require a bit of extra effort, but sometimes breastfeeding does for any child. Don’t give up; seek support if you need it. It is so worth it in the end.”

Aimee & Cate
Michele & Harper


A few months ago I mentioned to a friend that I wanted to do a nursing photo shoot with my daughter with Down syndrome (DS). I was disheartened by hearing from women who had been told that their babies likely wouldn't nurse. Some were told by their doctors or other medical professionals that they shouldn't even bother. My breastfeeding relationship with my daughter is one of the greatest treasures I have and I felt sad to hear women say they felt they couldn't have that just because their child had Down syndrome. Many, if not most, babies with DS can breastfeed and for those that can, and whose mothers would like to do it, the benefits are immeasurable. Feeding your child is always a personal choice, but some of these women didn't have a choice because of their medical professionals. Somehow, my vision of posting a photo of myself nursing my daughter on my personal Facebook page to create awareness spawned a non-profit dedicated to reimagining life with Down syndrome and suddenly we had 10 women who volunteered their time. These women nursed their babies and children despite challenges most people could never have imagined including months' long NICU stays, heart failure, open heart surgery, pulmonary hypertension, duodenal atresia, leukemia, prematurity, and hypothyroidism. These women came together to give a gift to new and expectant moms, something many of them feel that they didn't have enough of: encouragement from real moms, like themselves, who struggled through the early and difficult days and eventually met success, usually when they least expected it. We want to say you can do it! We are here cheering you on! and go, mama, go! 

I'm so proud to have gathered these strong and inspirational women together for this project. I know we have started to change the conversation around breastfeeding babies with Down syndrome. And, we've only just begun. We have a video and a book coming out over the next month. Help us reach more moms by contributing to our project. All donations are tax deductible. Special thanks to Nicole Starr Photography for these amazing images.