Oral Motor Series
Breastfeeding and the Sensory World of the Baby
By Beverly Morgan, IBCLC, Caroline L. Bias, M.S., CCC-SLP, Susan Chick, & Hilary Jacobson, CH.HU.SI.
Sensory integration and feeding
Many times, sensory integration differences show up as feeding challenges. The baby may have difficulties feeding, whether he is breastfed or bottle fed. In some cases, his distress signals are mild and easily missed when he is a newborn. His struggle to integrate sensory messages may go unnoticed because they do not cause problems at first. However, as the baby asserts his preferences, refusal to feed at the breast or at the bottle may result.
Of course, not all feeding problems are due to sensory related issues. The first step to take if you have any feeding related challenges with your breastfed baby is to see an Internationally Board Certified Lactation Consultant. Your IBCLC can help you ascertain exactly what the problem or problem area entails: Perhaps the breastfeeding position triggers one of his sensory integration issues, or his difficulties might not be unrelated to sensory integration at all.
All of these situations and many others that can’t all be listed here can affect your baby and how he breastfeeds. Here we will focus on sensory integration as it relates to breastfeeding.
How sensory integration may impact breastfeeding
Touch – Sensitivity to touch varies with each baby. Some babies are super-sensitive over all their body. Others are super-sensitive on only one part of their body. Because breastfeeding is a “high touch” activity, a baby who is touch-sensitive would experience special challenges.
Light sensitivity –This baby may be so bothered by light that he sleeps all day to avoid the light. He may be wakened at night by just a small amount of light.
Sensitivity to sound – This baby may be so distracted by sound that he finds it hard to concentrate on breastfeeding. He may sleep through the day when there is a lot of sound, or he may hardly sleep because sound keeps him awake.
Sense of smell and taste – This little one may not want to nurse if mom puts anything with odor on her body. Lanolin on her nipples, soaps, lotion, cream or perfumes on her body, or chlorine from the pool all may cause the baby to fuss rather than nurse. The baby may react to the taste or smell of his mother’s milk much more than his peers. While another child may take differences in the taste of mom’s milk in stride, the smell or taste sensitive baby may not nurse as well at times when the taste or smell of mom’s milk is not as he expects.
Movement – This baby may need to be kept in motion a specific way. He may cry or fret when the movement is not present. In some cases, he may need to be kept very still. Often this baby cries in alarm and discontinues nursing from slight shifts and movements. It can be difficult to find a position to remain in while baby is nursing.
Balance, Body Position - Fear of falling; Uncomfortable sensation when being moved. Often this baby seems distressed by handling, cries when handled, and settles when put down or swaddled.
Interoception – These are the subtle and sometimes not so subtle messages from a baby’s internal organs and body.
Interoception is the communication the baby has with the inside of his own body: what he feels when he needs to urinate or stool, what he feels when he is hungry, or feeling discomfort or pain due to a problem such as GERD-reflux. This baby may want to pause while nursing, or to not initiate breastfeeding at all, while he is tuning in to his internal stimulus and listening to his body.
Finding answers to puzzling behaviors
If your baby has behaviors that puzzle you, getting the answers in a timely manner can help you meet the unique challenges you are facing. Remember, there are no difficult babies; there are only babies who are having difficulties. Granted, it is often bewildering to parent a baby with feeding or with sensory problems, but our babies depend upon us to figure out their problems and to make choices that will help them be more comfortable. It is up to us to aid them as they learn how to “make sense of their senses.”
Helping an infant with sensory issues learn how to interpret sensory information has long range benefits. Any time a baby or child has a successful learning experience, the brain is primed for more positive learning experiences later on in their development.
If you decide that you need professional guidance beyond your IBCLC and health care provider, begin with a call to your IBCLC or you health care provider’s office. Share your concerns and ask for a referral to a specialist. Where available, an Occupational Therapist with infant feeding and sensory processing expertise is usually the best resource for Sensory Integration or Sensory Processing help for your baby. You may also find it helpful to consult a feeding therapist (Occupational Therapist or Speech-Language Pathologist), a Physical therapist, or a Chiropractor if they have experience with infant feeding and sensory needs. Other treatments that may be valuable for your baby include CranioSacral Therapy and Neuro-Developmental Treatment (NDT). It can be difficult to find qualified professionals with all areas of expertise needed so you may have to coordinate between professionals to best meet your baby’s particular needs.
Each type of therapist and each kind of therapy has a different approach. If you or your child does not click with one therapist, keep looking until you find the right chemistry.
Whichever avenue you explore, look for someone with experience working with infants, and someone who is sensitive to babies and respectful of them in their approach. You spend the most time with your baby and know your baby better than anyone.