Helping babies to breastfeed - By Sally Wade, Surrey Osteopathic Care


The benefits of breast feeding

The immediate benefits of breast feeding are obvious:  the bonding moments that successful breastfeeding creates, the convenience, and the cost effectiveness.   Breast milk supports the baby’s immunity to disease too through transference of the mother’s antibodies. The process of suckling from the breast can also assist drainage of the Eustachian tubes, thus protecting against ear infections.  

It is believed that the process of breast feeding, including the stimulation of the roof of the baby’s mouth (i.e. the palate) and the effect that the jaw motion has on the membrane and muscular connections in the skull, is a powerful “self-help” mechanism for allowing many cranial tensions created during the birth process to release. 

Whilst no-one should feel bad if they find themselves unable to breastfeed their baby, there are plenty of reasons for giving breast feeding your best shot.  Understanding why some babies struggle with breast feeding can help to identify possible solutions to the problem.

Musculoskeletal disorders are a common factor. These are muscle and joint problems usually resulting from either the birth process or the position of the baby in the uterus during pregnancy (intra-uterine constraint). These often involve neck and jaw issues, but if a baby is distracted by musculoskeletal pain anywhere in their body, or indeed by a headache, it seems reasonable to assume that this could make feeding more challenging.  

Typical signs that musculoskeletal issues are a factor in breastfeeding problems include: 

  • the baby pushing off the breast

  • arching the back when feeding

  • milk dribbling out of the mouth when at the breast

  • ineffective suckling, often giving the mother sore nipples

  • distress or discomfort when being positioned for breast feeding.

Tongue tie can also play a role in making breastfeeding difficult to establish. Tongue tie is where the tongue is tethered too tightly to the base of the mouth, making normal sucking difficult for the baby due to restricted mobility of the tongue. Depending on the severity of the tongue tie you may be a offered a frenotomy (cut of the tie) which can help the baby to achieve a better latch. 

Looking for clues

So how would you know if your baby had a musculoskeletal problem? In addition to the feeding issues already described, babies with musculoskeletal and structural problems will often feel uncomfortable and may show this in a number of ways including excessive crying, sleep problems, and being generally unsettled. 

Things that you may notice as a parent include:

  • Erect head control (“military” posture when held upright)

  • Preference to keep or turn head to one side

  • Inability to turn head left or right

  • Uncomfortable in certain positions, e.g. lying on the back or having the nappy changed

  • Asymmetrical posture, e.g. lying in a curved “banana” shape

  • Facial asymmetry: crooked smile, uneven eyes, an ear that “sticks out”

  • Intolerant of the car seat

  • Fusses or becomes frantic during tummy time

  • Excessive back and neck arching

Need help? Here are some ways to get breast feeding on track…

There are a number of ways that you can get help.

Lactation Counsellors – These are specially trained professionals who can offer advice and support on all aspects of feeding your baby. They can also check your baby for tongue tie if you are concerned that this may be a factor.  Your Health Visitor should be able to put you in touch with your local lactation counsellors.

Support Groups -  It can also be very helpful to join a local group where support is available. Most hospitals will offer a breastfeeding support group, as do a lot of children’s centres. You may find that local lactation consultants also offer local drop in groups. 

Osteopathy - Musculoskeletal problems can start as a consequence of the positioning of the baby in the womb or through the birth process itself.  Lifestyle factors such as prolonged periods in car seats and lack of tummy time, can also have an impact on the musculoskeletal wellbeing of babies and infants. 

A specialist paediatric osteopath will conduct a full examination to see if there are any physical issues that may be contributing to the difficulties with breastfeeding. This will include an assessment of the whole body, but specifically the jaw, throat, neck and upper ribs. Techniques used to care for babies are always very gentle and are completely safe for infants. 

Sally runs Surrey Osteopathic Care -  at the moment there is no specific register to find appropriately qualified specialists in paediatrics, so to find an Osteo in your area click  HERE

Sally runs Surrey Osteopathic Care - at the moment there is no specific register to find appropriately qualified specialists in paediatrics, so to find an Osteo in your area click HERE

In the study published in Clinical Lactation (2016), 91% of the lactation consultants who responded noticed breastfeeding improvement following manual treatment.  

Support and the right care can make a difference!

It is recognised that early and consistent breastfeeding support can often make the difference in a mother and baby’s ability to establish a functional breastfeeding relationship. So, if you are struggling, don’t delay – there is lots of support out there for you.