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Unlocking the Secrets to an Optimal Breastfeeding Latch

breastfeeding latch Nov 20, 2023
Unlocking the Secrets to an Optimal Breastfeeding Latch

As a breastfeeding mother, you need to know how to latch your baby to your breast. A good latch plays an important role in how well a mother can meet her breastfeeding goals. 

Latching a baby to the breast takes time and patience. Some babies get it down right away while others struggle. Breastfeeding can be an enjoyable experience with time and practice. 

I remember the first time that I got on my Peloton bike and how hard it seemed for me to move the pedals around. Not to mention all of the painful new sensations that my backside experienced after I got off of that tiny and hard bike seat for the first time. But now, 4 years later, I am a pro at the bike that goes nowhere.  With time and practice, I'm now a pro at hopping on the bike for a good workout. 

But just like the bike took time to master, so does a good latch. Both you and your baby are learning how to figure this thing out. So, be patient with yourself and follow these tips and tricks to unlock the secret of a good latch. 

What is Mom's Job to Ensure a Correct Latch? 

Latching is not a one size fits all sort of thing, however, there are a few steps that you need to master no matter what your style is. As you and your baby get better at this process, there are steps that you can skip over. At first, follow this procedure each time until you get the hang of it. 

1. Choose a quiet spot: Whether it is your baby's nursery or your favorite chair in the living room, set up a nursing spot that you can go to for your nursing sessions early on.  Choose a peaceful environment where you feel relaxed and comfortable. 

2. Pillows are your friend: I can still remember the ache in my back and shoulders that I experienced from bringing my body to the baby instead of the other way around. The key to a good latch is to line your baby's mouth up to the level of your nipple. Position yourself in a comfortable chair or bed. Use pillows to support your back, arms, and your baby's body. 

3. Make a "nipple sandwich": Gently compress your breast with your thumb and fingers to form a "sandwich" shape. This will make your breast easier for your baby to latch onto. Just remember to form the sandwich in the direction that your baby can "bite into it" most easily. 

4. Open Wide! : Stroke the corner of your baby's mouth with your nipple to encourage them to open their mouth wide. A wide open gape allows the baby to get a mouth full of breast tissue and not just the end of the nipple. 

5. Bring your baby to the breast: When your baby opens wide, bring them in closer to your breast quickly. Ensure that their mouth covers a large portion of the areola, not just the nipple. The proper latch involves the baby's lips flanged outwards, covering both the areola and nipple.

A correct latch not only ensures your comfort, but it affords the baby the ability to efficiently extract milk from the breast. The better the baby latches and transfers milk, the better your breast milk supply will be for the duration of your breastfeeding journey. 

Importance of the Let Down

The letdown reflex is part of the initial phase of breastfeeding. After the baby latches on and begins to suckle at the breast, your breast sends a signal to your brain. Your brain then releases a hormone that comes back to work on the milk ducts inside your breast.  The alveoli cells within your breast will release milk down into the milk ducts. As it travels down the milk duct, the baby can then extract the milk from your nippple. 

Oxytocin is the key hormone involved in let-down. It is responsible for causing the muscles around the alveoli to contract, forcing the milk to be released into the milk ducts. The release of oxytocin and subsequent let-down is often accompanied by sensations and physical reactions.

Some women may experience a tingling or pins-and-needles sensation in their breasts when let-down occurs. This sensation is a result of the muscles contracting and milk flowing. Additionally, the breasts may feel fuller and heavier during let-down. Milk may also leak from the opposite breast that the baby is currently nursing on.

Some women can also experience a paradoxical reflex when their letdown occurs. As a breastfeeding mom myself, I experienced this uncomfortable sense of impending doom when my milk first letdown. It did not happen every time and definitely got better as time went on, but it is something that many women experience. It is also known as D-MER or dysmorphic milk ejection reflex. 

And then there are women who feel nothing in particular when their milk lets down. Breast milk production depends on the quality of how you empty your breasts and how often. It does not matter if you have a letdown sensation or not. 

Nutritive vs Non-nutritive sucking at the breast 

Babies need to suckle. It is part of the way that they feel comfort as well as the way that they obtain nutrition. While you can't measure what your baby is getting from the breast, you can often tell the difference between nutritive (actually eating) sucking and non-nutritive (comfort) sucking if you know what to look for. 

Visual cues are very important to help you to know the difference between your baby actually eating and just sucking for comfort. Observe your baby's movements along their lower jaw. As your baby extracts milk, you will notice their lower jaw moving rhythmically up and down. Another visual cue is movement in the ear and temple area. You will observe small muscle movements in these regions, indicating that your baby is actively sucking and swallowing. Additionally, you can see their throat "bull frog" out every few sucks if they are taking milk and swallowing it. 

Auditory cues are also helpful in determining if your baby is actively eating. At the beginning of a feed, you will hear quick and shallow sucking sounds. I call this flutter sucking. This rapid sucking is your baby's way to initiate the letdown response in your breast. Once your milk lets down, you should hear more of a gulping or swallowing sound. Your baby's sucking pattern will slow to a suck-suck-suck-swallow pattern instead of the quick non-nutritive sucking pattern. As your baby is completing the feeding, their sucking pattern will slow and you will hear less swallows. 

How do I know if my baby is finished eating? 

When it comes to breastfeeding, every baby is different. Some babies will release the breast on their own when they are finished feeding, while others may need a little help. Several factors determine whether or not a baby will release the breast independently.

One of the primary factors is the baby's age and stage of development. Newborns typically have a weaker suck and may not have the coordination to release the breast on their own. As they grow older, babies develop better motor skills and can release the breast more easily.

Another factor is the baby's hunger level. If a baby is incredibly hungry, they may have a stronger latch and not want to release the breast until they are satisfied. On the other hand, if the baby is full or not interested in feeding, they may release the breast sooner.

If your baby starts a non-nutritive sucking pattern and you need to manually remove them from the breast, be sure to gently put your finger in the corner of their mouth to break the suction.  You can then move your baby to the other breast and start the latch on process all over again. A mother may choose to "burp" her baby between breasts, although it is often not necessary. One of the many benefits of breastfeeding is that a baby seals well around the breast and does not often swallow a lot of air like a bottle feeding baby can. 

What are the signs that my latch is incorrect? 

Latching correctly to the breast is an important part of the breastfeeding experience for both mothers and babies. A good latch allows the baby to transfer milk from the breast while ensuring mom's comfort with nursing. 

1. Discomfort: One of the most apparent signs of a wrong latch is discomfort. Your baby may display signs of distress by squirming, pulling away from the breast, or repeatedly trying to reposition their mouth. You may also experience sore nipples or pain during breastfeeding due to the improper latch. Bleeding, bruising or scabbing of your nipples is also never normal and always a sign of a poor latch. 

2. Falls asleep at the breast: There are many reasons why babies fall asleep at the breast. It can be due to their gestational age at birth, their size or their strength. Some babies are just more sleepy, especially in the early days of life. A sleepy baby could also indicate a baby that is not getting enough to eat due to a poor latch. 

3. Dissatisfaction after feed: If your baby seems unsatisfied or still hungry after a feeding session, it could be an indication of a poor latch. Babies can become frustrated if they are unable to extract sufficient milk due to an incorrect latch. They may display signs of restlessness, fussiness, or continued rooting behavior after feeding. This could be a sign of a poor latch as well as a sign of low milk supply or poor milk transfer. This is where the expertise of a lactation expert comes in to help you to determine what the problem might be. 

Lactation Consultants Can Help

Breastfeeding offers many health benefits for both mothers and babies. It is a worthwhile pursuit. Hopefully, this article helped you to trouble shoot a bad latch and/or learn about how to latch your soon to be newborn. As a lactation consultant, pediatrician and breastfeeding expert, I want to encourage you to reach out for help sooner rather than later. The ability to latch your baby to the breast correctly can make or break your breastfeeding experience. A correct latch is key for breast milk production and to ensure a growing baby. 

If you want to reach your full breastfeeding potential, start with learning about breastfeeding before your baby is born. From initiation of breastfeeding to breastfeeding positions, 127 Pediatrics Breastfeeding Medicine can help you to achieve your breastfeeding goals.

Start by downloading our free Breastfeeding Preparation Checklist and My Breastfeeding Plan. 

© 127 Pediatrics; November 2023

This article is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice.

Dr. Wadley, 127 Pediatrics
Andrea Wadley, MD, IBCLC

Dr. Andrea Wadley is the owner, pediatrician, and breastfeeding medicine specialist for 127 Pediatrics. She has an established house-calls only pediatric practice in Colleyville, TX. She is also the owner and operator of the 127 Pediatrics Online Breastfeeding Medicine and Education Center.


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