Breastfeeding positions and latching on are the most important parts of the entire nursing experience. It doesn't matter how prepared a woman was during her pregnancy; how many books she read about breastfeeding; how many other women she talked to about their experiences: When a new mother holds her baby in her arms for the first time, it's surreal...it's beautiful...and, it's daunting. "Whoa, this is awkward! I've never had to sustain a life with my breasts before!" But the truth is, babies are born with the instinct to latch-on and suckle. They might just need a little assistance with the positioning, which is where the mother's practice comes in.
Two of the most common assumptions are that the latch means everything, and that it doesn't matter what position the baby is in. Positioning is key to getting a perfect latch, which is essential for establishing proper milk transfer for the baby and keeping you comfortable at the same time. Taking this step-by-step will ensure the best start.
Learn How Your Baby Latches On
Knowing how a baby latches on to a breast can help you feel more comfortable about what to expect.
VIDEO: Latch Positioning and Breastfeeding
Keep Your Baby Alert for the Feeding
A baby must be awake and alert to be able to latch-on. Here are some tips and techniques to help awaken a sleepy baby for a feeding.
Assume the Position
Not sure how to position your baby when breastfeeding? This video gives you a primer on the three most popular breastfeeding positions.
VIDEO: Breastfeeding Positions - How to Position Your Baby During Breastfeeding
Some positioning how-tos:
Cross-Cradle Position: The most common breastfeeding position used for newborns is the cross-cradle. Here are details on how to latch a baby in this position.
- Football Hold: A wonderful position for a mother who has very large breasts or who has had a c-section. This position is also great for premature or very tiny babies.
- Cradle Hold: A comfortable, natural position for older babies with better head control.
- Side-Lying Position: An excellent position for nursing in bed. This position is also great for a mother who has had a c-section.
So now that the baby is latched on and positioned correctly, what happens?
Just let her nurse. At the beginning of a feed, the baby will take long, well-drawn sucks, then swallow, and pause. When the baby sucks, the nipple and surrounding breast tissue are drawn into a teat (essentially, an elongated nipple) by suction created by the baby's mouth. The teat extends back as far as the hard and soft palates. The base of the nipple is held between the upper gums and the tongue which covers the lower gum. The sides of the tongue cup around the teat, which forms a long, narrow space in which the nipple lies. Milk is then expressed from the nipple and pushed toward the back of the mouth by a wavelike motion along the surface of the tongue. If the amount of milk taken in is adequate to activate swallowing, the baby's soft palate rises and closes off the nasal cavity.
Watch this video of the whole process in action: VIDEO: How To Breastfeed
As the feeding progresses, the suckle will turn to more of a flutter. Feedings are baby-led, which means that the baby determines when he is done. It's unfair to take a baby off of one breast when he's in a groove. If a baby comes off the breast in a totally relaxed state, the baby is done. At the next feeding, offer the other breast.
If the baby or mother is frustrated, they should take a break and just hold the baby skin-to-skin, perhaps with a finger in the baby's mouth for comfort. Once everyone has relaxed, try again. Babies learn very quickly, and soon enough the mother will feel the confidence that goes along with successful breastfeeding. The best advice? Be persistent and consistent. Practice. It will work out beautifully.
What happens if my baby doesn't latch on at all?
If the baby is having trouble latching and nursing effectively, the mother must be patient, persistent and consistent. We don't want to frustrate the baby so that he's turned off from the whole experience, but we do want to keep trying as often as possible. Even if we have a baby who is having difficulty latching, but licks a few times and stops, we know there's potential. In many cases, we need to teach the baby technique. If the baby, for example, has a "peanut-butter tongue" (where the tongue does not come down and out, as it should, to cup the breast, and rather turns upward to the roof of the mouth), we can practice by simply putting our index finger in her mouth, pad side up, to elicit a suck. This teaches her tongue to come down and cup the finger, just like it should at the breast. A lactation consultant can work with the mother on these techniques and give other tips on how to teach the baby to latch.