The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF advocate for babies to initiate breastfeeding within the first hour of birth and to be exclusively breastfeed for the first six months of life. Medical experts agree that infants should be breastfed on demand — at anytime during the day or night during this critical developmental stage. No supplemental foods or liquids should be given to babies until after they are six months old and have met developmental milestones and readiness for the introduction of solid foods, water and other liquids.
There is no doubt that breastfeeding is the best way for babies to get the nourishment they need for optimal development. But the benefits don’t stop there. The muscle patterns used for breastfeeding actually influence orofacial development, speech and language, airway health, sleep and much more.
The complexities of breastmilk and breastfeeding are just beginning to be understood. Breastfeeding research continues to explore the remarkable biochemical, physiological, and emotional relationship between mother and baby and the astounding properties of breastmilk itself.
The following tips and secrets are inspired by the breastfeeding section of Sleep-Wrecked Kids: Helping Parents Raise Happy, Healthy Kids, One Sleep at a Time by renowned speech pathologist and myofunctional expert Sharon Moore.
Even before your baby was born, your bundle of joy was already preparing for breastfeeding in the womb. By the 20th week of pregnancy, the fetus uses orofacial muscles for sucking and swallowing in a vital “dress rehearsal” for what is to come. These same muscles will continue to develop with breastfeeding.
In most cases, the more time your baby has in the womb, the more developed these muscles will be when they are born. This is why it is so important to support pregnant parents to have a healthy, full-term pregnancy with quality prenatal care, exercise, nutrition, rest, and relaxation.
There is a growing awareness about the importance of the first few hours after birth as a very special time for newborns and parents alike. This is a great time for skin-to-skin contact, bonding, and rest. During these first hours after birth babies will seek out and even propel themselves towards the breast for their first latch. This is when your first milk, called colostrum, comes in.
Colostrum which is so packed with antibodies and immunoglobulins that some call it nature’s “first vaccine”. Up to two-thirds of the cells in colostrum are white blood cells that guard against infection. Colostrum is often called “liquid gold” because it often has a yellow, thick, sticky quality, although color and consistency can vary.
It is good to know ahead of time that colostrum often comes out slowly and in small portions at first. This is because your newborn baby’s stomach is tiny (about the size of a cherry) and their digestive system is underdeveloped. The amount of colostrum matches this. The colostrum also helps line their gastrointestinal tract with crucial antibodies and stimulate the growth of protective mucus membranes in your baby’s itty-bitty intestines.
Most people are familiar with the fact that breast milk is the ideal food for a baby, both for the nutritional properties and antibodies found in it. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The muscles used in suck-swallow patterns for breastfeeding actually set the foundation for optimal orofacial development and bone growth.
You’ve probably noticed that soft spot at the top of an infant’s head called the fontanel, which will slowly harden over time as the bones of the skull fuse together. Similarly, a baby’s palate is surprisingly flexible and movable, especially during the first 6 months of life outside of the womb. Breastfeeding stimulates strong tongue movement against the palate and gums. These muscle movement patterns used for breastfeeding are crucial in helping to shape the upper jaw and facial bones.
The way your baby uses face, mouth, and throat muscles to suck and swallow milk actually influences their orofacial development. This will, in turn, lay a foundation for your child’s teeth and airway. Breastfeeding is believed to help prevent serious issues such as sleep disordered breathing, obstructive sleep apnea, mouth breathing, and crooked teeth.
Starting in pregnancy, surrounding yourself with a circle of support is important. Breastfeeding can be hard, which is why making sure you get the care you need is paramount. Make sure you identify and reach out to healthcare professionals who truly understand the connection between breastfeeding and airway health.
If you are having problems with breastfeeding, there are specialized healthcare professionals who can help including:
A good latch and a proper seal of the baby’s lip on the breast are necessary for comfortable and effective breastfeeding. This is because a vacuum is created when the back of the tongue lowers. This helps draw milk out of the breast and also allows a small amount of the baby’s saliva to actually make its way through the nipple into the mother’s body. This is vital because the mother’s body “reads” this information, especially if the baby is sick, to formulate the antibodies and other elements in breastmilk to help bring your baby back to health.
Babies who are born with an oral restriction such as tongue tie, lip tie, or buccal tie are often unable to get their tongue to the roof of their mouth. This can affect their latch and seal and create serious problems for their development and painful effects for breastfeeding mothers.
Signs to look out for in breastfeeding babies include:
If you suspect that your child has an oral restriction, it's important to meet with a provider who can help. Breastfeeding can also be helpful for restoring function after a release procedure and can help prevent myofunctional issues and oral dysfunction later in life.
Because the palate is so moldable early in life, a dysfunctional oral habit early on can literally change the shape of your child’s airway, skull and jaws. Pacifier use and thumb-sucking are problematic because they remold your baby’s palate and hamper healthy jaw development. A jaw that is too high, too arched, or too narrow is considered “poorly shaped” and can lead to oral dysfunction, airway issues, dental issues, and sleep-disordered breathing.
Myofunctional experts and speech pathologists like Sharon Moore encourage parents to avoid or limit pacifier use and finger-sucking habits because they can impair the development of the palate and jaw. Furthermore, both pacifiers and thumb sucking or finger sucking habits prevent infants and children from fully engaging in sound play, imitating clicks, clucks, sounds, and smiles. This impacts their speech and language development and gets in the way of the two-way communication of early conversation.
If your child is prone to finger or thumb sucking, it is important to get screened for an oral restriction such as tongue tie, because they could be using their fingers or thumb to open their own airway.
Most parents who have been through their baby’s teething phases know that breastfeeding can be a helpful way to soothe a baby through this painful process.
Even before baby teeth come in, breastfeeding can provide stimulation to the tooth buds, which helps the whole process.
Breastfeeding sets the stage for dental health for a lifetime. Not only does breastfeeding NOT cause cavities, it actually supports a face and jaw structure and straight teeth. This is important for the airway because strong and healthy jaws and palates can help prevent crowded teeth (malocclusion) caused by small, underdeveloped, and recessed jaws.
Breastfeeding is a learning process for both mother and baby. While breastfeeding, your baby is learning how to coordinate the tongue and orofacial muscles with healthy suck-swallow patterns. This lays a solid foundation for speech and language development.
Breastfeeding (especially in an upright or semi-upright position) is ideal for ear health and hearing. The vacuum action of breastfeeding also is believed to help keep the baby’s ear tubes open, which is good for ear drainage. This not only helps with swallowing function, it also helps prevent chronic ear infections by keeping this area free from fluids. Good ear drainage is also important for hearing, which is a big part of speech and language development.
There are many reasons why a parent may be unable to breastfeed their baby or simply choose not to for personal, work or medical reasons. Unfortunately, a bottle doesn’t provide the same functional benefits as the breast. This is because bottles don’t stimulate your baby’s lip, cheek and tongue muscles in the same way that the breast does.
Bottles encourage problematic jaw movement, tongue position and sucking. Similar to pacifiers, your baby’s palate is reshaped around the bottle nipple, which leads to a narrow, high shape and a low tongue position. Also absent in bottle feeding is the pressure system and vacuum that promotes healthy tongue position and reduces the risk of fluid pooling that leads to middle ear infections.
If you are bottle feeding, there are important steps you can take to support your baby’s orofacial development, as recommended by Sharom Moore in Sleep-Wrecked Kids.
Please see Sharon Moore’s book Sleep-Wrecked Kids for lots more games and exercises to help your child’s orofacial development.
Most people with a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea are put on a CPAP machine or medicated with pharmaceuticals to manage symptoms. However, this type of approach fails to address the root cause. If you are looking to get to the bottom of your airway issue, the first step is to surround yourself with trusted healthcare professionals who understand airway health, breathing and sleep disorders.
To set yourself up for success, you want a team that communicates with each other across disciplines for a holistic health approach. A custom, multi-disciplinary approach to address accompanying issues like oral restrictions, speech & language issues, and airway health & sleep will help your family have the best possible outcome.