At a family meet-up, a relative presented her 5-month-old baby with all the pride of a young mother. The little girl was beautiful, but I noticed an oddity in her features. The words ‘Down syndrome’ fluttered through my mind but did not perch. Later on, I confirmed that the baby had the condition.
Most people don’t think about Down syndrome unless it happens in their family. But it is important that we all learn about the most common genetic disorder in the world. This will equip us to support the people that live with this condition and their caregivers.
What is Down syndrome?
It is not a disease; it is a genetic condition. Human cells have 46 chromosomes – 23 from each parent. Chromosomes determine your physical traits. A baby born with Down syndrome has 3 copies of the 21st chromosome instead of 2. This leads to distinct physical characteristics, developmental delays, and intellectual difficulties.
Physical characteristics include:
- flat facial profile
- eyes that slant upward
- flattened nose bridge
- deep crease in the palm
- large space between the first and second toes
- short neck
- white spots in the colored part of the eyes
- small ears relative to the face
- decreased muscle tone and loose joints
But you should know that these symptoms vary with each child.
What Causes Down syndrome?
As mentioned above, people with Down syndrome have an extra 21st chromosome. This happens due to a random error in cell division. The cause of this error is not known. It can originate from either parent of the child. Though researchers have shown that in 90% of the cases the extra chromosome comes from the egg.
Having a baby with Down syndrome is not dependent on race or nationality. It can happen to any set of parents across all socio-economic platforms.
The only risk factor is the mother’s age. Research has shown that women older than 35 have a higher chance of giving birth to a baby with Down syndrome.
How is Down Syndrome Diagnosed?
Doctors can check for Down syndrome during or after pregnancy.
Tests for Down syndrome During Pregnancy
- Prenatal Screening Test
This test will show if there is an increased chance that a fetus has Down syndrome. It is not conclusive. If the chances of Down syndrome are high, doctors will perform another test.
- Prenatal Diagnostic Test
This involves checking for the presence of chromosome 21 in an extracted sample. The results will be conclusive but the test carries a slight risk of miscarriage.
Doctors provide all the necessary information to the expectant family. The family can then make an informed decision before going ahead with the test.
Checking for Down syndrome after Birth
Healthcare providers will check for physical symptoms of the syndrome. Then they will perform a blood test to check for the number of chromosomes in the baby’s cells.
My baby has Down syndrome, Now What?
The most important things for you to remember is that your baby is very much the same as other babies. Your child will meet his/her developmental milestones, albeit slower than other babies. But each child is different. So pay attention to your baby’s particular developmental progress.
Though you will need to put in a little extra effort, rest assured that taking care of your child will be rewarding. So love the heck out of that kid.
4 Things to do if your Baby has Down syndrome:
Get thorough Medical Checkups for Your Baby
Babies with Down syndrome have a higher risk of serious medical conditions including:
- Heart defects
- Respiratory infections
- Hearing and vision difficulties
- Thyroid disorders
- Sleep disorders
- Digestive problems
Though this list is scary, not all babies will have all these medical conditions. And some children may not have any. It is important for a qualified doctor to screen your baby for these medical issues. Note that some may not present any physical symptoms.
Raising your baby with constant guidance from a doctor will be a must. To make this easy, choose a pediatrician familiar with Down syndrome and stick with him/her.
All the health issues that occur in people with Down syndrome are also present in the general population. So, all medical advances also benefit people with Down syndrome.
Babies with Down syndrome are prone to infections. This makes breastmilk, which has antibodies, invaluable to them. It also boosts brain development. Thus, doctors recommend breastfeeding for babies with the condition. (Although, it is your choice)
Due to low muscle tone, newborns with Down syndrome will have a little difficulty at first with breastfeeding. It might be harder for your baby to latch on to the breast. Also, you will need to keep the baby alert so they stay awake throughout the feeding session.
With help from doctors, nurses, or breastfeeding experts, your baby will learn to feed well whether breastfed or bottle-fed.
Get Emotional Support
There will be differences between your baby and others. Expect stares from people because humans like to stare at anything different. These may have an emotional toll on you on top of the shock that accompanies the diagnosis of Down syndrome.
It is important to surround yourself with a great support network of family and friends. Let them take part in caring for the baby. Ask your healthcare provider to recommend support groups that you can join. There you will learn from other parents raising children with Down syndrome. Get counseling if you need to.
Remember that your baby is as special as any other that could ever be born. Work to accept and welcome the baby with all the love she/he deserves as you seek to understand the condition.
Learn about Down syndrome
Arm yourself with information as you collaborate with your baby’s pediatrician. Doctors understand so much more about Down syndrome than they did ten years ago. Get information from doctors, online, and from support groups and forums.
The right information will help make each day easier and fulfilling. It will also help you know what to expect. For example, what kind of therapy your baby might need to aid her development.
As your baby grows, provide chances for him/her play and learn. Children with Down syndrome need all the opportunities for positive and fun experiences like any other children. So, take it one day at a time. Focus on today. Give your baby the best.