The Importance of the Breastfeeding Latch

By Carly Hill

Babies are born every day. They cry. They poop. They spit up. They drink milk. That’s what they do. You’d think that something as natural as breastfeeding would come easily to mother and child, but it can be much trickier than you would expect.

When you take a look at all the problems associating with getting breastfeeding going, they are almost all about issues with getting the baby to latch properly.

The breastfeeding latch is very important because it allows your baby to drink effectively – and to draw enough milk out of the breast. For the mother, a good latch is key to a pleasant breastfeeding experience.

A baby who suckles with an improper latch will cause bleeding, raw, chafed nipples.

It is common for mothers to give up hope and throw in the towel saying, “Breastfeeding just isn’t for me.” But, if you can be patient and determined enough to do everything it takes to get your baby to latch, breastfeeding should prove to be a wonderful blessing for you and your child.

Timing is Everything

Many mothers make the mistake of not trying to nurse immediately after birth. Ybreast.com explains, “Babies are born with the instinctive drive to locate the breast immediately following birth. They have certain involuntary reflexes that encourage them to crawl – yes, crawl, toward their mothers’ breast. Within minutes of being born, babies are stretching and elongating their tongue muscles, rooting their heads and smacking their lips.”

A baby who is laid on his mother’s chest immediately after birth has a better chance of latching right away.

Now, if you wait too long, you might lose your window and have a much harder time getting your child to latch on. Those reflexes that your baby is born with start to disappear just two hours after birth.

When my daughter was born, the nurses gave me the option of either letting the baby try to nurse right away or after she’d been cleaned up. I wish I had tried right away because it took me and my daughter 9 or 10 days to get the latch down. During that time, I pumped every hour, trying and failing to get my daughter to breastfeed.

Many hospitals will give newborns pacifiers and bottles immediately, which really messes with the latching process. Bottle nipples are easier to suck than the breast, so if your baby is exposed to synthetic nipples from the get-go, a proper latch will be more difficult to achieve.

I read about a woman who gave birth to her baby and then watched as the nurses whisked her baby awake to weigh her and measure her. Just in the short amount of time it took the nurses to check her out and clean her up, by the time she returned to Mom’s arms, she lost interest in the breast.

Sometimes, it is impossible for you to nurse immediately after birth. Maybe you had a difficult labor or a C-section, or your baby was in distress.

This is not the end of the world. Just do your best to stimulate your nipples immediately after the baby is out. Apparently, the way our bodies are designed, if the nipples aren’t stimulated after birth, your body will think the baby didn’t make it. Producing milk will be more difficult if you don’t stimulate your nipples – either by hand or with a breast pump.

Even if you don’t feed immediately, you can still get it.

I pretty much did everything wrong. I allowed the nurses to give my daughter a pacifier and even a bottle (I think) before I got my chance. But, with the help and guidance of a lactation consultant, I was able to breastfeed successfully for 13 months.

So, How Do I Know If My Baby is Latching On Properly?

You will know if he isn’t. It will hurt. Breastfeeding isn’t supposed to hurt. Here are some signs of a good latch, listed on EveryDayfamily.com:

  • Cheeks are rounded
  • Mom can hear the baby swallowing
  • The ears move
  • Baby falls off the breast after feeding, or is very relaxed after feeding

On the contrary, here are some signs of an improper latch:

  • Baby making a clicking or smacking noise
  • Dimpled cheeks
  • Nipple feeling like it’s rubbing against the roof of the baby’s mouth

You may think (or even be told) that your nipples are just sensitive and that the pain will subside, but if you feel any pain after the first few seconds of breastfeeding, there is probably a problem with how your baby is latched on.

Don’t Be Intimidated

Full term babies are born with an innate ability to breastfeed as soon as they are born. The survival instinct kicks in right at birth and although it might not be easy at first. Your baby will get a handle on it.

Babies know how to breastfeed, even while they are in the womb – somewhere around 32 weeks gestation. Rooting is also an instinct that will come naturally to your baby.

Did you notice your nipples darkening and expanding during your pregnancy? And, what about that weird dark line running up your stomach? As weird looking as those symptoms are, they serve a purpose. When your baby is born, he is actually capable of pulling himself up your body, following the dark line, to the dark nipples to suck and survive. It’s incredible.

Practice makes perfect. What might start off awkward and uncomfortable feeling will soon feel completely natural and painless. So, don’t fret. Don’t overthink it.

Some babies are faster learners than others. Typically, a baby who is born full term and naturally without a difficult labor or any drugs or epidurals, will learn the proper latch earlier.

How Can I Help My Baby Latch?

First off, don’t rush your baby. As a new mom, it’s unnerving and stressful to hear your baby crying. A lot of moms get so distressed when their baby cries that they immediately start shifting their baby’s positions and trying things. But, babies need time. If your baby is rooting and clearly hungry, leave her at your breast and let him struggle a bit. It’s hard to watch your child and you just want to fix it, but latching on is a learned skill and you need to give your baby a chance.

That being said, positioning is key.

If your baby is latched on correctly, most of your areola should be in your baby’s mouth. Your nipple should go all the way to the back of the baby’s mouth.

Dr. Sears recommends the cradle hold. Here are some practical tips on how to get your baby into the proper cradle hold from AskDrSears.com:

  • “Place one or more pillows behind your lower back, and/or shoulders so that you are comfortable and relaxed.
  • If you’re in bed, put pillows under your knees.
  • You’ll need at least one pillow in your lap to bring baby up to the level of your breast, and another under the arm that will support your baby as he breastfeeds.
  • If you are sitting in a chair, use a foot stool or something else to raise your lap so you don’t have to strain or lean over to get your baby closer to your breast.”

During my first two weeks of breastfeeding, I couldn’t figure out why I was having so much trouble. So, I hired a lactation consultant to come to my house. After one hour, I was a breastfeeding pro.

The lactation consultant showed me a handful of techniques – all involving how to hold the baby, really. It seems simple and as a mom, you might feel foolish. How hard can holding a baby to my chest be?!

It’s not hard once you know what you’re doing, and of course it’s much easier to have someone showing you what to do, rather than just reading about it. But, if you’re looking to give it a good try before you hire a professional – here a couple things to keep in mind.

When offering the breast, follow these tips from Dr. Sears…

“First, squeeze out a few drops of colostrum or milk to moisten your nipple. Then, cup your breast with your hand, palm and fingers underneath and thumb on top. Keep your fingers clear of the areola, the darker area around the nipple, so that baby can take a big mouthful of breast. If your breasts are very large, use a rolled-up hand towel under your breast to support its weight.”

Wait until your baby’s mouth is open very wide before guiding him onto the nipple. If the baby doesn’t open his mouth automatically, Dr. Sears suggests you “tickle baby’s lower lip to encourage her to open her mouth wide –really wide.” Your baby’s top and bottom lip should be turned out.

Tips from Veteran Breastfeeding Moms

Instructions and even tutorial from a consultant are invaluable, but sometimes some of the most helpful advice comes from other moms who have been there, done that.

Here are just a few tips from regular moms like you. You can read all of them at BabyCenter.com.

“ – Don’t watch the clock to see how often or how long your baby is nursing. Instead, go with your instincts. If your baby is rooting around or crying, then feed him or her – even if you just did. – Gina Locke, Grapevine, Texas 

– I’m a pediatrician mom of a 3-year-old whom I breastfed for eight months. My son was extremely hard to start: Despite making our first attempts (unsuccessful) in the first hour and knowing what to do, it took almost two days to get him latched on. In the interim, we finger-fed with an SNS (supplemental nursing system) and glucose water while I pumped to get my milk supply going. The SNS was a lifesaver. We finally hooked it to my breasts and were able to get him latched on by the third day. – Dara Hogue, Cupertino, California

I’ve been solely nursing my baby since birth and now, at 9 weeks, she’s a big     healthy baby. I had very sore latch-ons at the start, and I found that if I stayed ahead of her intense hunger I was better off. I would check on her around the time I thought she would be waking to eat and watch for tongue sucking and lip-smacking in light sleep. If I put her to the breast when she showed early signs of hunger, she wouldn’t suck as hard as when I waited until she was fully crying and really hungry.” – Kathy Kent-Knurek, Chicago

– When I had my daughter, I knew I wanted to breastfeed. Unfortunately, she didn’t latch on right away, so I began supplementing with formula. Hospital staffers tried everything from round-the-clock attempts to pumping and inserting feeding tubes in the baby’s mouth while I tried every nursing position known. The baby knew how to suck, but she just wasn’t getting the knack of it. Finally, we tried the plastic breast shield. My baby was able to suck the large plastic nipple and draw the milk rather than search for my small nipple. I had visions of using the shield from then on, but luckily I lost it and was forced to teach the baby to take my own nipple. I had to use a syringe to “pull” the nipple larger, but in time, thanks to the baby’s suckling, my nipples conformed. The rewards for not giving up have been great! – Alison O’Donnell, Pawtucket, Rhode Island”

After reading all these accounts, here is what is clear. Getting your baby to learn the proper latch is sometimes harder than you might anticipate. But, the good news is there are many things you can try – whether it is use of supplies like a nipple shield or syringe, or visits with a lactation consultant.

Those first few days after birth are an easy time to give up, but mothers who stick to it and don’t give up reap the reward of successful, painless nursing.

Getting your baby to latch is the hurdle to overcome. Breastfeeding pain is almost always due to an improper latch. Once you get the latch, you’ll feel like a pro. Give yourself and your baby time. Don’t give up. It will be well worth it.