In 2012, Brittany Chestnut suffered a sudden, severe illness that culminated in a stroke during her freshman year of college. She lost full mobility of the left side of her body, and her right side was significantly weakened.
Through these challenges, Brittany remained determined to achieve her professional and personal goals – including motherhood.
Brittany received occupational and physical therapy at an inpatient rehabilitation hospital in Nebraska. With the help of continued therapy at home in Kansas and back at school at Evangel University in Springfield, Mo., she regained limited mobility in her left side – she had been left-handed – and full functionality on her right.
In 2016, Brittany graduated from college and married her husband, Jonathan. Inspired by her own medical history, she earned a master’s degree and became a medical social worker. And in 2021, as my patient, Brittany delivered a healthy baby boy named James.
Though Brittany had no physical complications during pregnancy, she confronted a range of emotions as she prepared to care for James with her disability. Finding resources for parenting with the use of one arm was a challenge.
More than 4 million parents in the U.S. have disabilities, but as Brittany discovered, guidance for parenting with a disability is often over-generalized. She struggled to find baby products and newborn care methods for her specific impairments.
Many mothers with physical disabilities say discussing strategies with moms in similar situations is particularly valuable. In that spirit, Brittany offered to share the tips and products she found most helpful as a new mom.
Brittany’s story: Planning to parent with a disability
I’m very much a planner, so when Jonathan and I decided to have a baby, I wanted to learn as much as I could about how my health history might impact my pregnancy. After I experienced an early miscarriage, my Ob/Gyn at the time referred us to Jamie Morgan, M.D., a maternal fetal medicine specialist at UT Southwestern.
Dr. Morgan was extremely encouraging during our first consultation. She understood that clarity on circumstances surrounding my stroke could help us prepare for challenges we might encounter along the way and give us peace of mind as we grew our family.
Dr. Morgan introduced me to her UT Southwestern colleague Mark Johnson, M.D., a neurologist who specializes in strokes. Dr. Johnson was able to connect the unique circumstances that led to my stroke in a way no doctor had before. He provided the clarity I needed and confirmed pregnancy would be safe for me.
The next step in my planning process was to find resources that help parents with disabilities care for their children. But it was more difficult than I expected.
Looking for advice
I searched online resources and Facebook groups for tips from new parents with hand and arm limitations like mine. But almost nothing came up. I found guidance for moms who have a back injury or use a wheelchair but couldn’t find practical tips on how to care for a baby using just my right arm.
I asked Dr. Morgan for a referral to an occupational therapist, and she referred me to Elizabeth Denson Ray. Elizabeth helped me use a simulation doll to practice dressing a baby and changing diapers. She also taught me an easier way to put on a baby’s socks: I put the sock on my hand inside out, gently hold the foot, then roll the sock upward.
The doll wasn’t the same as a squirming baby, but the experience helped me feel more prepared.
Jonathan and I also asked friends who were new parents for baby product recommendations. We compared product reviews and images online, and visited retail stores to get a feel for how I would use products such as car seats and baby carriers.
5 baby products for moms with hand and arm disabilities
James is almost 2 months old now. Based on my motherhood experiences so far, I recommend these five products for other parents with limited arm mobility:
- Clothing with snaps or magnetic fasteners. They’re much easier than zippers to manage with one hand. Another tip from Elizabeth: With onesies that snap at the bottom, it’s faster and less frustrating to dress your baby from the bottom up. Put their shoulders through the leg holes instead of pulling the garment over their head.
- Car seat with one button in the center of the handle. I can click the seat into place, adjust the positioning, and release the seat with one hand. Many car seats require pressing two buttons at once, which can be a pain for anyone!
- Over-the-shoulder bottle feeder. It angles the bottle perfectly so you only need one hand to hold and feed the baby.
- K’tan baby wrap. Dr. Morgan suggested this product, and it’s so easy to use. It consists of two fabric loops that I put on like a T-shirt. Then I just lean back a little, slip James in, and secure him.
- Snugglebundl. This blanket acts like a hammock, helping you to safely lift and move your baby. You can lay your baby on the blanket, pick up the handles, and carry your baby a short distance – the blanket supports the baby’s head and body. This product was recommended on a YouTube channel Elizabeth suggested I watch: Just Add Ginger, which is run by a mother who provides one-handed parenting tips.
A few words of encouragement
Asking for help can be really hard when it comes to caring for your child. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to “just know” what to do. But acknowledging challenges helps us problem-solve.
My advice to any new mom – especially those with disabilities – is to be kind to yourself. I’m learning to have patience and grace for myself. And even though Jonathan can change the baby’s diapers and clothes faster, he reminds me (and I recognize) that I’m a good mother because I’m doing the best I can.
When I was researching during pregnancy, I would get frustrated by broad advice that didn’t feel helpful: “Your baby will adapt to you” or “You’ll figure things out together.” But those statements are true. We are adapting together – just as families living with disabilities adapt in all areas of life.
When you are ready to have your baby, I recommend finding a doctor who is eager to address your anxieties and concerns. I’ve told Dr. Morgan I want to see her for any future pregnancies. Her attentiveness has been a big blessing for our family.
Related reading: Choosing an Ob/Gyn: Questions to ask the provider and hospital
Personalized care for every pregnancy
Caring for Brittany and watching her become a strong, skillful mother has been very rewarding. All of our patients have access to experts across several specialties, and we work closely to customize support based on the patient’s individual needs.
I hope Brittany’s story encourages more patients to ask questions and seek answers about their pregnancy and newborn care options. With the right support team, patients with physical disabilities can enjoy motherhood after a happy, healthy pregnancy.