Breastfeeding a Baby with Congenital Heart Disease

You were probably thinking about how you were going to feed your baby before you knew your baby had congenital heart disease (CHD). Now you may wonder if you can still breastfeed your baby. Not only can you breastfeed, but breast milk will actually help your baby.

If your baby is diagnosed with a congenital heart defect before birth or if the discovery is made right after birth, you may not be able to nurse your baby right away. You will need to begin pumping your breasts within the first few hours after birth. The sooner you begin pumping and the more often you pump, the sooner you will have milk for your baby. A nurse or a lactation consultant can help you to get started.

Getting started pumping

Using a hospital-grade double electric breast pump will help you make more milk. Plan on pumping every 2-3 hours for the first two weeks. It is important to pump at least once in the middle of the night.

At first, you will get very small amounts of colostrum but this milk is important for your baby’s immune system, so save every drop.

Once your milk supply is well established, you may be able to pump less often. You may want to think about renting an electric pump for home use. Ask your nurse or lactation consultant for information, or see pump rentals for more information.

If your baby is diagnosed with a congenital heart defect when he is older, or if it is a milder form of CHD and surgery can wait until the baby is several months old, you will already be nursing your baby at home. There will be some time in the Hospital when your baby will not be allowed to eat or drink. It will be important for you to pump your breasts during this time so that you keep up your milk supply. For more information, see pumping and storing your milk.

How breastfeeding can help your baby

There are many reasons for you to breastfeed. Breastfeeding creates a special closeness between you and your baby. It’s the one thing that only you can do.

Breast milk is the best nutrition for your baby. It’s the perfect food for your baby’s growth and development needs. It is easier to digest than formula. Breast milk also contains antibodies which help your baby fight infections.

Breastfeeding and baby's heart 

Some moms wonder if breastfeeding is too much work for their baby's heart. The “work” of breastfeeding is actually less than the “work” of bottle feeding. Sucking, swallowing and breathing are easier for a baby to coordinate while breastfeeding. The amount of oxygen available to your baby is greater while breastfeeding than bottle feeding. Your baby’s heart rate and breathing are more normal during breastfeeding. Compared to bottle-fed babies, breastfed babies with congenital heart defects grow better.

Breastfeeding after baby's surgery

How long you will need to wait to breastfeed after your baby's heart surgery will depend on your baby's condition. It could be several days to several weeks after your baby's surgery before you can nurse at the breast. We encourage you to continue pumping your milk during this time to be given to your baby and to maintain your milk supply. 

After surgery, sometimes babies are fed through a feeding tube. In most cases, the baby will bottle feed before breastfeeding. If you are pumping your milk, you baby can receive your breast milk via tube or bottle until your baby is strong enough to nurse at the breast. You can talk with your baby’s nurse or doctor if you would like to try to breastfeed first.

Reviewed by Rachelle Lessen, MS, RD, IBCLC on June 01, 2010