Baby Led Latching

Baby Led Latching

The concept of 'Baby Led Latching' is so endearing and natural. It's the opposite of the techniques I experienced in hospital with my son – the second my newborn dared to open his little mouth the attending nurse would grab my breast and shove it in his little mouth. I get the importance of a deep latch when breastfeeding, but the roughness just felt wrong and unnecessary (and it's not a sight you'll ever see in nature).

In my opinion, getting the right latch can be made unnecessarily stressful by over bearing nurses or lactation consultants (though I know there are so many fantastic professionals out there). The basis of baby led latching is to provide baby with a calm, relaxed environment, allowing him to follow his own instincts – no rush, no pressure.

Babies aren't the helpless beings they're made out to be, they're a lot smarter than we give them credit for. They come equipped with reflexes that help them find and attach to the breast:

  • Getting to the breast: stepping and crawling motions
  • Finding the breast: searching and rooting
  • Attaching: rooting and opening
  • Sucking: stimulated by the presence of the nipple at the palate

Allow baby the opportunity and support to use his instinctive reflexes and you'll be pleasantly surprised. Dr. Smillie, a pediatrician, lactation consultant, and baby led latching advocate puts it perfectly:

"I tell moms their job is not to "make" the baby latch, but simply to "allow" the baby to latch."

Baby led latching is particularly helpful for newborn babies who are learning to latch, or for babies that have been put off breastfeeding by negative experiences. For them it's important to allow the full sequence of instinctive reflexes to unfold, where one behaviour leads to the next.

The basic steps of baby led latching
    1. Start with a calm (even sleeping) baby
    Start with baby either sleeping or in a quiet, alert state. If baby is really hungry, feed him a little milk first to take the edge off (1/2 to 1 oz). If sleeping, let the baby wake up on his own.

    2. Get relaxed and comfortable together
    Hold and cuddle baby, skin to skin – baby in a diaper only, mother with no shirt or bra. Hold baby upright (vertically versus horizontally) between breasts – support baby's neck with one hand, and support his bottom with the other. This position promotes both relaxation and alertness in baby, and is something we naturally do to comfort a distressed baby. Just cuddle together for a while.

    3. Let baby take the lead
    There's no rush, no pressure. You're on baby time here. If the baby wants to sleep on mom's chest, let the baby sleep. It is important for both baby and mother to be calm, alert, and comfortable. If either one isn't calm, then the anxiety will be communicated to the other and sabotage the feeding attempt.

    4. Recognize baby's 'hungry cues'
    When baby is hungry he'll squirm and twist, bob his head against you, or may look up at your face and make eye contact.

    5. Support baby as he moves around
    Support his neck and shoulders with one hand and his hips with the other, and just follow him as he moves. Avoid the temptation to try to make him latch on or even to try to line up his mouth with the nipple.

    6. Support baby as he latches
    As the baby moves down, his lower cheek might brush the nipple or the breast and that makes him turn towards it — the rooting reflex. When baby's chin hits the breast, the firm pressure of the breast against his chin makes him open his mouth wide and reach up and over the nipple. As the baby approaches the nipple, it is his nose, not his mouth, that will first be positioned over the nipple. As he presses his chin into the breast and opens his mouth, he'll get a large mouthful of breast and a deep latch.

    7. Reposition baby as needed
    Nipple pain is a guide indicating you need to adjust baby's position. If the pain is mild you can adjust the baby's position without unlatching — usually by pulling the baby's bottom in more snugly, which moves the baby's whole body and the baby's head will tip back a little bit more, allowing his jaw to open wider. This way the baby gets a bigger mouthful of breast.

    8. Be patient, especially when the baby gets frustrated and upset
    Calm the baby by talking in soothing tones. Bring baby back to the vertical, midline position.When baby calms, then start again. If baby is too hungry to try again, then feed a small amount of milk to the baby via cup, spoon, syringe, or finger-feeding tube (which ever baby prefers).

    The Breast Crawl
    Here's a great clip of a latching technique called the "Breast Crawl". It's a chance to see the amazing reflexes a newborn is born with, mentioned earlier. Many of the same principals apply to the breast crawl as in baby led latching, but it's practiced lying down, and usually takes place immediately after birth. Though the instinctive crawling reflex is still present in babies up to several weeks after birth.

    Baby-led Latching: A "intuitive" approach to learning how to breastfeed
    By Mari E Douma, DO

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    1. Amazing! I had no idea a newborn could move like that. I'm so glad I found this, since I've been quite anxious about breast feeding and proper latching. (Baby #1 is due in about 4 months)

      Thanks for your wonderful blog!

    2. Sarita, thanks! How exciting, the first baby in the family :)It's recommended that if you're wanting baby to be able to do the breast crawl, to have a natural (no drugs) birth, otherwise baby may be too drowsy.
      Here's a few other posts on natural birth & bonding that might be helpful:
      All the best for your birth! :)

    3. Yep... and I would recommend baby led home-birthing! The miracle of mum and baby being born works wonderfully on the same principle of staying calm, alert and comfortable.

    4. Sounds great Marie-Anne!

    5. The rooting reflex is an important reflex in a newborn baby. It is vital because it helps a baby be able to find his mother’s breast and nurse.