Breastfeeding doesn't always come easy to new moms. Sometimes it takes a bit of (frustrating) trial and error. To make it easier on you, whether physically or mentally, there are some things to know about latching that could make a big difference in your success during the early days of nursing. The most important thing to remember, though, is that it's completely normal to need some help.
Plus, experts say moms shouldn't panic if their baby doesn't latch right away. "Getting a deep latch, a great seal, and babies lips to flange on the breast can be tricky at first," lactation consultant M. Rachael Birkenhauer, IBCLC, tells Romper. "You have never breastfed and baby has never breastfed," she adds, so there will be a learning curve for both of you. It's also important to remember that the process is different for everybody. "Every mother and baby fit together in their own way, some facing more complex challenges than others," lactation consultant Natalie Ward, BS, IBCLC, RLC, tells Romper.
As the Office of Women's Health reported, there are a number of factors that could be contributing to the latching struggle, such as your strong-willed baby's frustration, a weak suck, or being tongue-tied. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) suggested small changes moms can make to help encourage latching, like moving to a quiet place with minimal stimulation and allowing your baby to take the lead.
Both of these organizations ultimately suggest women meet with a lactation expert to get extra support when it comes to latching. In the meantime, Birkenhaur and Ward say there are several pieces of advice they give to clients who are struggling, and would love all new breastfeeding moms to know.
1. Don't Panic If It Doesn't Happen Right Away
It's easier said than done, but new moms should take the latching process in stride, because it can take some time. "Some babies come out latching perfectly from the get-go, [but for] most babies it takes until the one or two week mark... to really get it down," Birkenhaur says. Ward agrees: "Some babies take longer to get the hang of latching than others, and this can be caused by several factors [such as,] gestational age, birthweight, underlying/undiagnosed health conditions, [or] anatomical variations (either orally for baby or breast anatomy for mom)."
2. Every Baby Is Different
This may seem obvious, but when you're in the thick of trying to get the hang of breastfeeding it's hard to remember that no two humans are alike. Ward likes to remind her clients that "every baby is different." "Learning how to latch may take just a few tries," she says, in the case of a "full-term baby, born with average birth-weight, with no underlying health conditions or oral anatomical variations that would impact feeding, and a mom that has adequate breast tissue with nipples that evert well with stimulation, and no underlying health conditions that effect breastfeeding."
However, this is the exception, not the rule. Ward says, "these 'unicorn' newborns are like finding a four-leaf clover in the middle of winter." More often than not, babies or moms struggle with something when it comes to latching. She says, "Some late preterm newborns simply need to grow a little more before they develop a strong enough suck and have a big enough mouth to obtain a deep latch." On the flip side, she says, "Some full-term babies are born with oral anatomy variations that can cause difficulty with obtaining a deep latch in the beginning."
3. Start Off With Some Skin-To-Skin
From the moment a new mom delivers her baby, healthcare professionals stress the importance of skin-to-skin time. It's also a way to help encourage successful latching, according to Birkenhaur. "Starting off skin to skin helps initiate a calm and inviting place for your baby to nurse," she explains. "If baby is upset it is harder to get a deep latch."
"Placing baby on mom or partner's chest helps soothe baby and regulate their little nervous systems," she adds, which will aid in a smoother transition.
Additionally, Ward says skin-to-skin "has been proven to enhance breastfeeding confidence, promote emotional bonding, and is associated with longer nursing duration. Skin-to-skin helps babies stabilize blood sugar levels, latch better, and can be done as long desired. You can’t over-do it!"
4. Know What A Good Latch Looks Like
Part of knowing whether or not your baby is latching correctly is knowing what to look for. Ward explains what a successful latch looks like: "baby’s lips at the breast should form a wide gape ([at least a] 140-degree angle or greater) with all or most of the areola in the baby’s mouth." Additionally, she says moms should "aim to get more of the areola area covered from near baby’s chin. This is called an asymmetrical latch, meaning your nipple doesn’t go into the middle of your baby’s mouth (like a bulls-eye), but more towards the very back of the roof of the mouth." To get a better idea of where your nipple should go in your baby's mouth, Ward says to "glide your tongue over the roof of your own mouth, and feel where the hard and soft palate meet towards the very back. That is where your nipple needs to go." Finally, she explains that "baby’s lips should appear flanged outwards like a fish."
5. It Shouldn't Hurt
New moms often share how painful breastfeeding can be, but, by and large, that shouldn't be the case. "Pain isn't normal," Birkenhaur says. "If baby has a shallow latch and you are in pain, do not continue the feed." At that point, you can reposition, try a different technique, or even move into another room to reduce stimulation. Birkenhaur stresses moms who feel pain should "keep trying until [they] get a comfortable latch." Ward says a good latch "should be relatively comfortable, with any pain subsiding quickly and like more of a tug than anything else."
6. Don't Google
Every mom is guilty of resorting to Google searches for reassurance, advice, or knowledge during the baby years. But, it's not always the best idea. Ward tells her clients not to rely on Google for information because "there is way too much false information out [there], and most of this information is not evidence-based." She continues, "Turning to 'Dr.Google' can fill you with self-doubt and cause more stress (which inhibits milk 'letdown') than anything else."
If you are in a place where you need that reassurance or assistance just for peace of mind, Ward suggests only "checking out websites that site information written from IBCLC's, physicians, and/or other credentialed healthcare providers."
7. A Gentle Touch Will Help Get Things Going
Snuggling and nuzzling your baby probably feels like second-nature to you, but those gentle touches do more for your little one than you realize. When it comes to latching, Birkenhaur suggests moms should put their soft touch to work. She says, "When you begin [nursing], have your baby nose to nipple and lightly stroke down towards [its] lips. This signals the baby to open wide and you can then gently roll baby on the breast for a deep latch."
8. Take A Break
Motherhood in general is overwhelming, but the added weight of being the sole provider of your baby's food is a lot to take on physically and mentally. If your baby is struggling to latch, and you feel like you're at the end of your rope, Ward suggests "tak[ing] and break and walk[ing] away for a moment."
It's normal to feel like you're in over your head, but just because it's normal doesn't mean its pleasant. Ward encourages moms who are "feeling overwhelmed, discouraged, and frustrated with the way latching is going, [to] stop and take a moment to process your feelings. Everyone needs a break every once in a while... It’s ok to feel this way!"
9. Ask For Help
Birkenhaur, Ward, the Office of Women's Health, and WIC all share the same piece of advice: Ask for help!
Breastfeeding isn't easy for everyone, and there are a lot more women struggling than you probably realize. Birkenhaur suggests women find a local support group with other moms, and Ward agrees that nursing moms should join support groups if for no other reason than because "'commiserating' with other parents that are in the trenches with you can 'lighten the load.'" If joining a local group isn't your thing, Ward and Birkenhaur both suggest reaching out to an IBCLC. Additionally, you can always ask your partner for help, too, because, as Birkenhaur says, "you will need those extra hands!"
Failing to get a good latch can really impact a new mom's emotional well-being. One study found that women who want to breastfeed but are unable to do so have an increased risk of postpartum depression. To combat this, new mothers need all the support, compassion, and understanding they can get. This includes getting it from the people around them, outsourcing help, and simply being kind and patient with themselves .
A. Brown, J. Rance, P. Bennett, October 2015, "Understanding the relationship between breastfeeding and postnatal depression: The role of pain and physical difficulties" Journal of Advanced Nursing, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26494433
M. Rachael Birkenhauer, IBCLC & Owner of Lactation Counseling Services
Natalie Ward, BS, IBCLC, RLC & Founder and owner of The Milky Mermaid, LLC (a full-service lactation private practice)