While I’m sitting down to write this, I’ve been running this little blog for about 6 months. In that time, I’ve been asked about breastfeeding with autism way more times than anyone would guess. Wondering why?
A lot of autistic parents want to breastfeed their babies, but a lot of us also struggle with sensory processing disorder (SPD). We are easily overwhelmed by sensory stimuli, and babies are like the number one source of sensory input in the world.
Babies scream, they wack you with their little flailing fists, they vomit and poo constantly, and they want to nurse all. the. time. I mean, they’re also amazing little wonders, don’t get me wrong. But taking care of a baby is not an easy task, let’s be honest.
What Do I Know About Breastfeeding While Autistic?
I know that breastfeeding can be really hard!
I have two kids, and I breastfed both of them until I finally gave up on them self-weaning and weaned them each at 4 years-old. That means I breastfed my son throughout my pregnancy with my daughter, and continued to breastfeed them both after she was born for two full years, until I weaned my son. Then I breastfed my daughter only for another two years.
So, I have some experience breastfeeding – 6 years total! It was a lot of good things, but it was never, ever easy. Both of my kids have sensory processing issues tied to their ADHD and autism, and they often went on nursing strikes. Both of them refused a bottle.
Neither started getting substantial calories from solid food until close to 18 months (which meant they were still hungry at night for much longer than average.) I spent a lot of time worrying that they weren’t eating enough even though I was lucky enough to have a lot of milk.
And I know about the autism part…
Because I’m autistic! But also, I suffer from pretty significant sensory processing disorder. I’m easily overwhelmed by too much sound, light, and touch, which is 100% the definition of a baby, so I dealt with SPD, sensory overwhelm, and related anxiety for much of my time breastfeeding.
I’m proud I persisted with breastfeeding, and I gained a lot from doing it. But, I also can’t say that I’m 100% sure that it was the best decision for my mental health.
Breastfeeding is a choice, not a requirement!
Breastfeeding can be hard, and I want you to know, you don’t have to breastfeed. Formula is safe, nutritious, and often a lot less stressful than breastfeeding. My mother couldn’t breastfeed me and I feel so thankful that formula exists.
You are not a bad parent for choosing not to breastfeed, or for not being able to breastfeed. Making a choice for your mental health means you’re making the best choice for your family.
And, most these tips will work for bottle-feeding families, too!
4 Tips for Breastfeeding with Sensory Processing Disorder or Autism
1. Feed on a schedule, if you can, especially once baby is out of the newborn stage.
Babies need to eat often, especially before about 4 months-old. But after your baby has regained their birth weight, it’s usually reasonable to start offering the breast only every 2-3 hours during the day, and 3-4 times overnight. Check with your pediatrician or lactation consultant to be sure.
Offering the breast a little less often can help you and your baby in a couple of ways. First, you’ll be helping to make sure that your baby is getting full feeds each time they nurse, which can reduce colic and help with sleep.
Also, you’re building in breaks for yourself! You want to be there for your baby, but you and your breasts don’t have to be the self-soothers 100% of the time. If you know around when you expect to feed your baby, you can make sure you’re planning time for sensory breaks, quiet time, and whatever you need to reduce overwhelm during breastfeeding.
If you have an older baby or a toddler, a schedule can be even more helpful. Many parents become overwhelmed by breastfeeding a wriggling, kicking toddler on demand. I definitely did!
When my daughter was about 13 months, I made the decision to switch from on-demand breastfeeding to only offering to nurse in the morning, before nap, and before bed. That way, my daughter still had the comfort and closeness she wanted out of breastfeeding, but I had more time to mentally prepare foe the sensory drain. Additionally, this offers a gentler way to support your child in finding ways to self-soothe apart from just breastfeeding.
2. You are allowed to take a break from your baby.
All parents become overwhelmed sometimes, but those of us who have sensory processing difficulties are at an even bigger disadvantage. That means it’s our responsibility to have a plan for what to do when we are solo parenting and we get overwhelmed.
I am here to tell you that it is absolutely okay if you need to take a break from your baby. Even if your baby is hungry, crying, overtired, etc., if you are not in the middle of an emergency situation, and you are about to break, put the baby down in a safe place and take a minute. The baby will be okay.
Does your baby have a crib, a pack ‘n play, or a gated safe space where you can reasonably put them for a few minutes and walk away without worrying? Find your “take a minute” place ahead of time.
Make a plan for what to do if you get overwhelmed, and there is no one else around to help. If you don’t think you can handle it by yourself, talk to a friend about calling them when you’re overwhelmed, or set up a code word to text so they can call you and help you remember what to do.
And then, when you are overwhelmed, take the break! You are not a bad parent for taking a minute to breathe. By prioritizing your wellbeing, you are being the best possible parent for your baby, and you are making the best possible decision to keep your baby safe.
3. You are allowed to take a break from other responsibilities, too.
Are you familiar with spoon theory? If not, take a minute and look at this post.
Okay, so now, think about how many tasks were part of your everyday life before you had a baby. Now, think about how many spoons you’re spending on tasks that have been added to your life since you had a baby.
Perhaps the reasons for your constant feelings of overwhelm are becoming clearer?
During this time of your life, your job is to take care of yourself, your family, and your baby. That is it. When your baby becomes a preschooler, life will suddenly get a lot easier, but if there was ever a time to give yourself a break, now is that time!
If the laundry or the dishes don’t get done one day (or several) so that you can be a better parent, that’s okay. If you order pizza a little more often, that’s okay. If the Roomba gets trapped under a dresser and you don’t notice for a week, that’s okay. Try to outsource whatever you can. You are doing more important things!
And, don’t forget the basics: ear defenders, taking quiet breaks, making sure lights aren’t too bright. Make sure you’re eating drinking and taking showers when you want them. You’ll feel better and have more resources.
4. Your baby should not be allowed to hurt you.
Now, obviously I know that breastfeeding is not a 100% painless process, especially in the beginning. Your nipples will get sore, baby will be teething at some point, and their little fingernails are so sharp that you will absolutely look like a tiger mauled you at some point.
But breastfeeding shouldn’t hurt. If you’re experiencing ongoing nipple soreness, please check in with your pediatrician or midwife, or call a free breastfeeding hotline and check in. You may have a bad latch, and besides causing you pain, it may mean baby isn’t getting as much milk as they should.
If your baby is a little older and is experimentally biting, hitting or kicking on purpose, you do not have to let them! Your baby should absolutely be safe, fed, and loved, but they do not have the right to routinely cause you pain during breastfeeding.
A young baby obviously doesn’t understand that they’re causing pain, but you do, and you are responsible for addressing it. If baby is hurting you, you are completely allowed to disengage them from the breast, put them down somewhere safe, and take a ten minute break.
Even if baby is too young to completely understand, this is a good time practice setting safe, clear boundaries for you both. Tell baby your boundary calmly: “If you need to bite, I can give you your chewy toy. No biting on me!” Remind them once, and then take them off the breast if you need to.
Even if your baby is still hungry, or tantrums, you are not hurting them by putting them down somewhere safe, and taking a couple of minutes to yourself to calm down and regroup (see above!). You are setting the field for basic respect, both by modeling it for them and by practicing it yourself.
Obviously, once you are calm, you can go right back to baby and help soothe them, or feed them further as needed. But unless your baby has special medical needs, a 10 minute break will not hurt anything.
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I hope this advice helps you!
Just commenting in case my experience helps anyone. I have now birthed and fed three babies and I personally have discovered that while an electric breast pump drives me up a wall, sensory-wise, a manual pump or a baby is for some reason much easier to tolerate. If you are a parent struggling with breastfeeding or pumping it may be worth experimenting with different ways of pumping or feeding. Even a slight change might have the potential to make things easier on you!
Thank you so much for your comment, Beth, and for sharing your experiences. I also found that different pumps offered very different sensory experiences, and that’s a huge component for being able to feed comfortably.