One of the most important parts of your baby's first few days is how she feeds. For moms who are breastfeeding, getting the right latch early on is key to ensuring proper nutrition and development for baby and preventing painful breastfeeding for you.
If you're breastfeeding for the first time, even if the process goes relatively smoothly for you and your baby, you might still face some challenges along the way. Even though newborns are built to breastfeed, in many ways breastfeeding is still a learned skill, both for you and for your baby.
One challenge some moms and babies face is problems with the baby's latch on to the breast. Educating yourself early, even while still pregnant, can prepare you for a smooth transition. If you delivered at a hospital or birthing center, you may have even had access to lactation consultants to help you get comfortable nursing your baby and begin to address any latch issues early on. But there are always surprises when it comes to actually trying something so new, no matter how well you prepare.
Even if you don’t get it right the first time, there’s a good chance you and your baby will just need to make some slight adjustments to find the right latch. If you continue to have trouble - especially if you don't have much guidance early on - it can be helpful to reach out to a lactation consultant on your own, ask your healthcare provider to refer you to someone who might be able to help, or bring it up with your baby’s pediatrician. In the meantime, though, tips that might help you both get more comfortable include:
One thing that can help latching success is introducing your baby to your breast as soon as possible. As long as both you and your baby were healthy and able to following delivery, chances are good that your healthcare provider placed baby onto your chest for some skin-to-skin contact and allowed you to try nursing your baby right away to help tap into her earliest latching and nursing instincts - some newborns may even try to wriggle their way right up to their mother’s breasts to start eating right after delivery!
And even once you bring baby home, to continue skin-to-skin contact will reinforce her natural nursing instincts and may help facilitate a quick latch.
Even though most of the time when you breastfeed you’ll be sitting or lying down, it’s definitely hard work. Try to get comfortable as you begin settling in to nurse your baby by using any pillows, footstools, or other support you might need.
There are a number of different breastfeeding positions you can try, and some of these might work better than others both in terms of comfort and in terms of latching, so it’s a good idea to experiment as needed. If there’s one position that helps your baby get a better latch, then you might want to use this early on, even if it's not your favorite position.
As you get into the swing of things and as your baby grows bigger, you can continue to try different positions that allow you to both nurse comfortably.
Whatever position you’re in, in the early days of nursing when your baby is still so little, make sure that her neck and back are supported (rather than focusing on supporting the back of her head), that baby is snuggled in close to you, and that her mouth and nose are facing your nipple.
If your baby isn’t opening her mouth, you can brush your nipple across the top of her upper lip, almost as if you are tickling her lip. Hopefully, this will make your baby open her mouth wide and lift her chin, which brings you one step closer to a good latch!
Once your baby is opening her mouth, your instinct might be to try to place your nipple right into the center of her open mouth - especially if you’re feeling desperate to get your baby to latch already - but if you instead aim your nipple toward the roof of her mouth, it will actually help facilitate a deeper latch.
A deep latch is a good latch, and this will mean that your baby can draw more milk from the breast and will cause less nipple discomfort for you.
Keep in mind that as you are trying to guide your nipple into your baby’s mouth, you likely want to be holding the breast she is trying to feed from. As you hold your breast, your thumb and fingers should form a “C” shape around the breast to guide things along, keeping your fingers well back from the nipple.
Depending on the size of your breasts, you may even want to gently squeeze the breast a bit, so that you can compress or “sandwich” your breast tissue, allowing your baby to get a better latch. If you do this, make sure that that the compression is parallel to your baby’s lips, in the same way that you would eat a sandwich yourself. And if your breasts are on the larger side, placing a rolled up towel beneath them might make it easier for you to do all of this (often challenging) baby and breast juggling.
If your baby also wants to bring her hands up toward your breast and her mouth while nursing, don’t feel the need to move them aside. If they really get in the way, that’s probably a sign that you should hold baby just a little bit closer to your body. But having her hands there will actually provide her with a greater degree of comfort as she eats.
And when she gets bigger, your baby may even try to help guide your breast into her mouth. So helpful!
If your baby is having a hard time latching, you may be tempted to push her head onto your breast, but this could actually cause her to arch away.
It's more effective to draw her towards the breast and then hold your breast steady for her to latch onto, guiding the nipple into her mouth as described above. And, again, it’s important to focus on supporting your baby’s neck and back rather than the back of her head.
You will know that your baby is latching correctly if you feel a pulling or tugging sensation and, eventually, if there is minimal discomfort for both you and your baby.
Your nipples might be a little sore in the early days of breastfeeding just because they’re still getting used to all this hard work, but they will actually toughen up pretty quickly. And once you’re in the swing of things, when done correctly breastfeeding isn't supposed to hurt, so if it does, it's a sign that there may be something not quite right about the latch and that you might want to try to make some adjustments.
If things are really hurting - like if you feel pinching or pain after a few sucks - and you need to take your baby off your nipple, don’t try to pull her directly off, or you’ll be facing even more ouchies. To break the seal of the latch with minimal discomfort you can gently slip your finger between your breast and your baby's mouth, detach her from your breast, and then try again.
Another way that you can be alerted of a not so perfect latch is if you hear clicking or smacking noises, because when your baby latches well things shouldn’t be so noisy. These sort of noises mean that she has a shallow latch, which, again, can cause nipple pain. If she is being a particularly noisy eater, you know what to do: break that seal and start again.
While showing is better than telling when it comes to latching, there's a lot you can learn by looking at where your baby ’s mouth is situated on your breast.
Once she is latched, your baby’s chin should be pressed into your breast, with her head tilted back to allow her mouth to open nice and wide.
A deep latch happens when your baby puts not just your nipple but, in fact, most of your areola into her mouth. Ideally, you shouldn’t see too much areola peeking out beyond your baby’s lower lip, though you may see some areola peeking out beyond her upper lip. This sort of a latch forces your nipple to the back of her mouth and allows her tongue to be pressed against the underside of your areola, which you may or may not be able to see, depending on the angle.
This also allows Her gums to compress the milk ducts behind your nipple, which will stimulate the mammary glands located behind the areola. (If you seem to be having trouble because you have particularly large areolas and your baby has a particularly small mouth, a lactation specialist might suggest massaging the area around your areola to simulate what your baby's mouth would be doing if your and her proportions lined up a bit better. And, again, to “sandwich” your breast a bit can also help with this.)
Another sign of a good latch is if your baby's top and bottom lips are flanged, meaning turned out like fish lips - as if she popped out of the womb ready to add some more duck-lip selfies to the world. (If her lips are turned inward instead, your healthcare provider or lactation specialist might gently turn them outward so that your baby can get a better sense of how latching on is supposed to feel.)
Unfortunately, many women find that it takes a few feeding sessions to figure out the proper latch and so may find early feeding sessions a bit painful. It's important to know that while your baby might latch easily, she could also have trouble with it. There might even be times where it seems like she is fighting you as you try to maneuver her into a better latching position, which can be frustrating. But your baby really isn't trying to make your life any harder. She’s just as new to the whole process as you are, and it may take a little time for the two of you to figure out how to work together.
Remember, you can and should seek out help if you need it. your baby’s pediatrician will certainly let you know if she is gaining weight as she should be - a good indicator of how well she is eating - and can also help you with any questions you might have about latching. And lactation consultants can be a huge help during this time too, so do seek them out if you need to. These experts will be able to let you know if you’re facing normal latching challenges or if your baby is having trouble eating because of other issues.
But most early latch issues are totally normal, and it may just take a little bit of trial and error to get things right. Again, it’s highly likely that you’ll work through these early challenges quickly and will soon be breastfeeding with ease!