Mothers With Disabilities Less Likely to Start Breastfeeding

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Mothers with intellectual or developmental disabilities are less likely to initiate breastfeeding and to receive in-hospital breastfeeding support than those without a disability, new data suggest.

In a population-based cohort study of more than 600,000 mothers, patients with an intellectual or developmental disability were about 18% less likely to have a chance to initiate breastfeeding during their hospital stay.



Dr Hilary K. Brown

“Overall, we did see lower rates of breastfeeding practices and supports in people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as those with multiple disabilities, compared to people without disabilities,” study author Hilary K. Brown, PhD, assistant professor of health and society at University of Toronto Scarborough in Ontario, told Medscape Medical News.

The study was published in the January issue of The Lancet Public Health.

Disparities in Breastfeeding

“There hasn’t been a lot of research on breastfeeding outcomes in people with disabilities,” said Brown, who noted that the study outcomes were based on the WHO-UNICEF Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative guidelines. “There have been a number of qualitative studies that have suggested that they do experience barriers accessing care related to breastfeeding and different challenges related to breastfeeding. But as far as quantitative outcomes, there has only been a handful of studies.”

To examine these outcomes, the investigators analyzed health administrative data from Ontario, Canada. They included in their analysis all birthing parents aged 15 to 49 years who had a single live birth between April 1, 2012, and March 31, 2018. Patients with a physical disability, sensory disability, intellectual or developmental disability, or two or more disabilities were identified using diagnostic algorithms and were compared with individuals without disabilities with respect to the opportunity to initiate breastfeeding, to engage in in-hospital breastfeeding, to engage in exclusive breastfeeding at hospital discharge, to have skin-to-skin contact, and to be provided with breastfeeding assistance.

The investigators considered a physical disability to encompass conditions such as congenital anomalies, musculoskeletal disorders, neurologic disorders, or permanent injuries. They defined sensory disability as hearing loss or vision loss. Intellectual or developmental disability was defined as having autism spectrum disorder, chromosomal anomaly, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or other intellectual disability. Patients with multiple disabilities had two or more of these conditions.

The study population included 634,111 birthing parents, of whom 54,476 (8.6%) had a physical disability, 19,227 (3.0%) had a sensory disability, 1048 (0.2%) had an intellectual or developmental disability, 4050 (0.6%) had multiple disabilities, and 555,310 (87.6%) had no disability.

The investigators found that patients with intellectual or developmental disabilities were less likely than those without a disability to have an opportunity to initiate breastfeeding (adjusted relative risk [aRR], 0.82), to engage in any in-hospital breastfeeding (aRR, 0.85), to be breastfeeding exclusively at hospital discharge (aRR, 0.73), to have skin-to-skin contact (aRR, 0.90), and to receive breastfeeding assistance (aRR, 0.85) compared with patients without a disability.

They also found that individuals with multiple disabilities were less likely to have an opportunity to initiate breastfeeding (aRR, 0.93), to engage in any in-hospital breastfeeding (aRR, 0.93), to be exclusively breastfeeding at hospital discharge (aRR, 0.90), to have skin-to-skin contact (aRR, 0.93), and to receive breastfeeding assistance (aRR, 0.95) compared with patients without a disability.

An Understudied Population

Commenting on the study for Medscape, Lori Feldman-Winter, MD, MPH, professor of pediatrics at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University in Camden, New Jersey, said that one of its strengths is that it included patients who may be excluded from studies of breastfeeding practices. The finding of few differences in breastfeeding practices and supports for people with physical and sensory disabilities, compared with those without disabilities, was positive, she added.



Dr Lori Feldman-Winter

“This is an understudied population, and it is important to call out that there may be practices related to breastfeeding care that suffer, due to implicit bias regarding persons with intellectual and multiple disabilities,” said Feldman-Winter. “The good news is that other disabilities did not show the same disparities. This study also shows how important it is to measure potential gaps in care across multiple sociodemographic and other variables, such as disabilities, to ensure equitable and inclusive care.”

Healthcare professionals need to be aware of disparities in breastfeeding care, she added. They need to be open to exploring potential biases when it comes to providing equitable care.



Dr R. Douglas Wilson

R. Douglas Wilson, MD, president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada and professor emeritus of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Calgary in Alberta, noted that the size of the cohort represents a strength of the study and that the findings suggest the possible need for closer follow-up of a new mother who is breastfeeding and who has an intellectual disability or multiple disabilities.

“You might keep that patient in hospital for an extra day, and then the home care nurse may look in on them more frequently than they would for someone who does not need that extra oversight,” said Wilson. When their patients are pregnant, obstetricians and gynecologists can find out whether their patients intend to breastfeed and put them in touch with nurses or lactation consultants to assist them, he added.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Canada Research Chairs Program. Brown, Feldman-Winter, and Wilson reported no relevant financial relationships.

Lancet Public Health. 2023;8:e47-e56. Full text

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