FAQ 5. Latching

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Q: What should I know about latching the baby onto the breast?

A: That is a very important question. Proper latching helps to ensure that the signals are properly sent through the nerve endings in the mother’s breast to her brain to make more milk. It is how the baby places an order for the next meal, if you like. It helps to teach the baby to open her mouth as wide as possible before bringing her in really close to the breast.

Babies tend to learn this spontaneously after birth if the mother is undrugged and the bonding process after birth is not rushed. But even if things do not go perfectly at first, there is plenty of time to practice over the coming weeks and months. With more practice, things usually go better. If they don’t, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant can probably help.

But the advice below assumes you have a normal, healthy baby born at term. Before you start, baby ideally will be in a quiet alert state. Sometimes it helps to remove her clothes, so there is lots of skin-to-skin with mother. If there is too much fabric baby might remain too sleepy or even have trouble getting near the breast and it might be hard for baby to get into the right position to reach to latch onto the areola properly.

If baby is extra sleepy, removing clothes and/or changing a diaper can be helpful and make baby comfy. A great time to practice!

Also, don’t wait until the baby is fully crying to breastfeed — most babies show signs of breastfeeding well before they start to cry (see FAQ about breastfeeding cues).

Get comfortable, have plenty of water and snacks on hand so you won’t have to get up, and support your back, and perhaps a pillow or folded blanket on your lap to bring baby up to breast height without you having to lean forward. If you have a support person, this is a great opportunity to let them bring you pillows and footstools to help you be comfortable.

Lay your baby on the pillow on your lap or by your side (football hold). It often helps if the baby has her head tilted back a bit. Try it! Tip your head back and see how much easier it is to open your mouth than if you have your head tilted towards your chest.

Once baby is positioned to breastfeed, her nose should be around the level of your nipple, and her mouth situated so that she will be able to get a lot of the area around and under the nipple into her mouth. That is often more helpful than trying to centre the breast in the baby’s mouth.

Some mothers find it helpful to brush the baby’s lower lip with the breast. Sometimes the smell of milk on the breast stimulates the baby’s normal instincts, so some moms like to try expressing a drop or two to help baby open her mouth and “root” for the breast. If your breast seems too full, expressing a little this way also reduces the flow so that baby doesn’t have to gulp or try to keep up with a gush of milk.

Wait until her mouth is opened like a baby bird — do not try to stuff the breast into a half-opened mouth. Baby’s mouth should be opened really wide when going onto the breast, with her tongue down, not curled back, so that s/he is actively taking the breast instead of the breast being put in the mouth. You might want to support your breast underneath to make it easier for baby to grasp it. If you do this, make sure not to lift it up too high, which might make it difficult for baby to get a good latch.

And do not cover the areola underneath with your hand or fingers, which can affect the baby’s ability to get a good mouthful of breast. The idea is to support the breast if you need to. For some moms, even one or two fingers is enough. Experiment with what works for you and YOUR baby.

And these suggestions work when you are breastfeeding lying down. It is normal to breastfeed lying down. The important thing is to lie right down, not propped onto your elbow, which will strain your neck and feel tiring after a few minutes. Again, make sure baby’s head is tilted back a little, and latching the same way as if you are sitting up, that is, with baby’s nose near the nipple, and grasping the breast from underneath. The baby should actively reach with his mouth, and this helps him to get a good wide-open grasp.

Sometimes even if the latch isn’t perfect to start with, baby will adjust the latch as the breastfeeding progresses, as long as it’s basically good. But if the latch hurts, and continues to hurt or you think the latch is not improving after a minute or so, then break the suction gently at the corner of his mouth, and start over.