How your baby latches onto your breast is one of the most important factors in being successful with breastfeeding. Without a good latch, breastfeeding can hurt, and your baby may not be able to remove enough milk from the breast. This can lead to a fussy baby, engorged breasts, or growth problems.
With this in mind, some babies won’t latch on, leading to real distress for both mom and baby! This may happen right from the start, or it may develop after a time of problem-free nursing. The good news is that many times this is a problem that can be overcome. Here’s how to get past latching problems.
1. If it’s right after birth, keep doing skin-to-skin. Birth can be a stressful process for a baby, especially if any complications arose, like the need for a C-section. Babies usually latch in the hour or two after birth, but if not, it is not a reason to give up and start supplementing. Keep your baby in close contact via skin-to-skin, but don’t force him or her to try nursing. This gentle environment helps your baby calm down and relax, which can help with getting breastfeeding off to a good start.
2. Have your baby examined. It might seem simple, but having a qualified person examine your baby may help you figure out why he or she won’t latch. For example, a tongue tie, cleft palate, high arch of the palate, or abnormal muscle tone may all be reasons your baby is having issues. Many of these can be overcome with small procedures (such as a tongue tie release), position changes, or physical therapy or suck training for your baby.
3. Have yourself examined! Sometimes the issue with latching may be from mom having flat or inverted nipples. While many babies feed fine when their mother has these nipple variations, some may not be able to latch well or at all. Another issue may be a size mismatch; that is, a mom may have very large nipples and her baby a small mouth. This may make it difficult or impossible for baby to latch on. Having an IBCLC examine you and make recommendations (such as using a nipple shield or spoon-feeding until baby grows a bit bigger and his or her mouth can take the nipple) can be immensely helpful.
4. Help your baby stay awake. Some babies may start to latch only to come off the breast as soon as they get a little milk. Late preterm babies are known for this, as are babies who may have low blood sugar or who may be ill. Resolving these other issues is key, but so is helping them stay alert during a feed. Keep them unwrapped and only in a diaper while feeding, and gently stimulate them by talking, singing, or rubbing their feet or back.
5. Establish your milk supply in the meantime. Even if your baby won’t latch, it’s important that your breasts stay stimulated and keep having milk removed so that more is produced. If this isn’t done, your milk supply may plummet. In the early days when only colostrum or drops of milk are produced, hand expressing can be enough. Once your baby is older, though, pumping each time your baby feeds will help you to keep producing. Be sure you’re using a good quality, double-electric pump, and have a lactation consultant watch you use it the first time to make sure you are using it correctly. Also, be sure to keep up with skin-to-skin, since this helps your milk supply too!
6. Feed the baby. When your baby doesn’t latch, it is totally normal to worry that your baby is starving. The good news is that newborns don’t need to eat immediately — in fact, the healthy, term newborn can go almost a full 24 hours before supplementing should be considered. Past this point, if supplementation is required, don’t assume this means a bottle and formula. Work with your lactation consultant to make a feeding plan. This can often include giving your pumped milk via a spoon or cup, and in volumes small enough to match what is normally eaten during a breastfeeding session. This helps your baby avoid formula and keeps bottles out of the mix, since they can lead to nipple confusion and further complicate latching issues.
7. Don’t give up. Your baby may not latch for weeks, and then one day everything seems to click! This can be a combination of a few things: your baby’s mouth may now be a size where latching is easier, and his or her muscles may now be stronger and more coordinated to help with milk removal. It may also be that your milk has come in and this has helped keep your baby interested at the breast. Whatever the reason, many babies who initially have trouble one day seem to figure it out. In the meantime, be sure to keep a close eye on your baby’s growth, your milk supply, and your mental health by staying in touch with your baby’s pediatrician and your lactation consultant. Talking with other moms who have been in your shoes can help, too.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, March 2020
- Some babies have issues with latching from birth.
- Doing skin-to-skin can encourage a newborn to latch.
- Having your baby and your breasts examined may help uncover why a latch issue is present.