Many kids with Down Syndrome learn to be self-sufficient in daily activities just as typical kids do. Developmental milestones are generally reached later, and these kids may need some more help and encouragement from caregivers.
Learning to eat takes time for any child. If your child has Down Syndrome, she may have more challenges than typical children do, and you may need to modify some things so she can be successful.
The infant years
If you choose to breastfeed, the bonding between you and your baby can be very rewarding, and healing in an emotionally trying time. Finding out that your child has special needs is difficult: breastfeeding can help you to connect with your baby, increase your confidence as a parent, and reduce infections, which are more common in Down Syndrome babies.
If your baby requires medical interventions or IV feeding, discuss breastfeeding with her health care team. You may need to use a breast pump for a few weeks or months to keep up your milk supply until the time is right for your baby to nurse. Surround yourself with a strong network of people who are supportive of your decision to breastfeed, if that is your wish. La Leche League, other breastfeeding groups, a community health nurse, or a lactation consultant, can be helpful.
Babies with Down Syndrome can be sleepy, with poor muscle function and a weak suck. Your baby may not be as demanding as other infants, so you may not always know if she needs something. More encouragement may be needed for these special babies, but breastfeeding also provides extra stimulation, and improves coordination and strength in the mouth and tongue.
Tips for breastfeeding success:
- Make sure your baby is fully awake
- If she is sleepy, stroke her cheek or tickle her feet to keep her awake
- Practice positioning your baby so that she won’t cough or choke: her neck and throat should be slightly higher than your nipple
- Proper positioning can help your baby to latch on properly and prevent you from getting sore nipples
- Try a nursing pillow or other pillows for support
- Ask for help from a lactation consultant or community health nurse.
Starting solid foods
Starting solid foods is normally no different for an infant with Down Syndrome than for any other child, except that it may take a bit longer for her to learn. Be patient, and give your child time to learn at her own pace.
From about age 10-12 months, try handing small pieces of soft food to your baby and letting her feed herself. Once she is able to feed these to herself, put small pieces of soft finger foods on the high chair tray so she can pick them up herself. You may need to remind her to keep her tongue in her mouth, and show her how by touching her mouth.
Learning to drink from a cup
A child with Down Syndrome may protrude her tongue, her lips may not close properly over the cup, and she may bite the cup. Demonstrate how to drink from a cup, pointing out that your tongue is in your mouth and the cup is resting on your bottom lip. Use a mirror when she tries so she can see herself, and then let her practice. A two-handled cup may be easier to hold.
Start with an empty child-sized spoon with an easy-to-grip handle. Encourage her to hold the spoon and play with it, while you feed her with another spoon. Then show her how to use the spoon by bringing it up to her mouth, with nothing on it at first. Let her chew on it and encourage her to bring it to her mouth. Down Syndrome kids may hold the spoon using a palmar grasp for longer than typical kids do: sometimes years. Try textured foods with pudding-like consistency that stays on the spoon easily. Pudding, oatmeal or rice cereal, yogurt, pureed food, thick stew, thick sauces, or hummus, are good ones to try.
When you first give your child a fork, try easy-to-stab foods that will stick to the fork: scrambled eggs, thick stew, or mashed potatoes. Then progress to macaroni, tender meats, pancakes, or other soft pieces of food that can be easily stabbed.
Plates and bowls
Plastic dishes with raised sides provide something for a spoon to scoop against.
Always check with your child’s health care team when making a decision regarding your baby, or if you are not sure of something.
For more information, check out these resources:
Bruni M (2006) Fine Motor Skills for Children with Down Syndrome, 2nd edition. Bethesda, Maryland. Woodbine House.