Breastfeeding with Hemiplegia
Updated: Feb 17, 2022
Tentatively, the student midwife tries to reposition my left hand so that it is holding the baby. My left hand fails to flatten against the baby’s body, it remains at its distinctive bend. She looks mystified by my hand. She doesn’t understand why my hand can’t hold a baby – wait, that word – normally.
We are speaking two separate languages and we need each other’s language. I need the language of breastfeeding, so that I can breastfeed my baby. She needs the language of my body, so that she can navigate through its limitations and find a way for it to breastfeed.
My baby has been alive for less than 24 hours.
She is an absolutely tiny red-purple skinned creature with dark hair that stops at her eyebrows and goes all down her back. She smells of the earth and of familiarity when she is delivered on to my chest. She nestles for breast, finds it, latches. My hands precariously holding her in place. The latch feels odd: slightly painful, it is like tiny vibrations from a mini vacuum on my nipple. However, I can physically feel the bonding that I’ve read so much about pre-birth.
Still, it’s a struggle for my disabled body to know how to hold her in place to feed. Part of it is a lack of faith. I perceive of my body, and my left hand in particular, as frail and insecure. But my baby finds great security in my disabled body. She does not care that one of my arms is weak, limp, thin – she just thinks: Mummy. She places all of her confidence into it. Her confidence gives me a confidence in my adaptability.
I want to breastfeed for all the usual reasons people want to breastfeed. For the health benefits for baby and mother. For the bonding. For the ease – you are walking food supply. But I also want to breastfeed because I find lids fiddly. I can’t imagine myself at 2 o’clock in the morning screwing and unscrewing lids. I won’t be able to screw them tight enough for the milk not to leak. If someone screws the lid on for me, then there is a good chance that I won’t be able to unscrew the lid. I’m right about this. By the time my daughter is old enough to drink water, it takes me four different brands to find a bottle that I can screw the lid on tight enough so that she won’t spill it, but not so tight that I cannot unscrew it. Yes, other people could help. But my hormones are raging at me to feed her. My breasts are huge, constantly leaking, ready to feed at even the slightest squeak from any baby on the ward.
My body twists uncomfortably to achieve the classic cradle hold. The midwives are propping us up with pillows. Someone else holds her body in place, as my left hand fails to. She is feeding. Just this method is unsustainable.
I long to feed her easily and independent of help.
Then, one of the student midwives rushes in. She explains that I should lie down and my baby should lie down beside me, a little below but facing my nipple. This is called the side-lying position. It takes the emphasis off my left arm and its holding capabilities. It is the least physically demanding breastfeeding position. And it works! Wonderfully.
At the first midwife home visit, I show her the side-lying position. This is exclusively how we breastfeed. I feel embarrassed, like we should be doing the cradle hold, because that’s the pervading image of breastfeeding that I have in my head. I call my left hand pathetic. The midwife tells me that my left hand is not pathetic, and that we have mastered the side-lying position. Still, she arranges for a lactation consultant to help me feed my child without the full use of my left hand.
The lactation consultant is brilliant. She is forward, bossy, but a great believer in my body and its ability to care for my baby. She shows me different positions, props us up with pillows. We take photographs.
After she’s gone, I try the other positions, but keep falling back to the side-lying position. It’s okay. We’re not going very far with a new-born.
My confidence in my body is slowly building.
Then, a pub lunch. I feed her before. I plan to feed her afterwards. She won’t need a feed in that time. But then, she cries: my body is her greatest comfort. Necessity drives me. The practice I’d previously deemed futile enables me. Her confidence, and my newfound confidence, secures us. I breastfeed her in the cradle hold. And she is soothed. And I get to eat my lunch.
I have not written this to get into debates about breast vs bottle feeding. You are definitely not a less worthy parent if you cannot or do not want to breastfeed. Parents striking holier-than-thou wars are not my thing.
Disabled people live lives of constant adaption. When you have a baby, there is no real way that you can know how equipped your body will be for parenting. There is scant information out there for disabled parents or parents-to-be. Hence, I wrote this piece in the hopes that it will fall in front of the eyes of at least one disabled person who is about to become or is thinking about becoming a parent. I would like this to serve as an example of what is possible. Reading this would have been a great relief for me when I was pregnant, so with any luck, it will be that for others.
The Positive Breastfeeding Book: Everything you need to feed your baby with confidence - Amy Brown (2018) – a hugely useful and insightful book on all things breastfeeding.
 My other post, ‘Cerebral Palsy’ has a more detailed description of my disability.  I should say, forthrightly and clearly, that I harbour no ill-judgement to those that formula feed their children. Happy babies are not hungry babies.  Furthermore, I have referred to this as “breastfeeding” because I am a cisgender woman and have always identified with and felt comfortable having breasts. I do not mean to exclude anyone who prefers the term “chest-feeding”; I refer to it as “breastfeeding” in relation to my experience alone.