Posted by: Admin | September 25, 2012

The importance of the latch!

I hear pregnant women say how afraid they are that breastfeeding is going to hurt. I see women who wince when their babies latch on.  Every week, I train health care workers on how to prevent and relieve pain while breastfeeding by teaching them the importance of how the baby latches onto the breast of his mother.

If the latch is not right, it causes nipple pain: sometimes this can be pain at latch on and sometimes it can last throughout the whole feeding. You will hear people say some women’s nipples are just too sensitive. Others will say, the mother’s nipples were not prepared during pregnancy or the baby is breastfeeding too long. I even hear some people compare a baby to a barracuda! Ever hear that one? The “barracuda baby”? As if a baby can suck so hard on his mom that he will bite like a barracuda!

Those are myths. Babies are developed during pregnancy to know exactly how to breastfeed. They are not meant to bottle feed. But if that is the case, why do we sometimes see a baby that is not successful at latching on to his mother’s breast? Why does it hurt sometimes? It’s a little complicated but one thing we all need to remember:

“It is all in the latch!”

A full term healthy baby has the innate ability to suck at his mother’s breast as soon as he is born. When put on his mother’s chest, he will fret and jiggle until his mouth is near enough to the nipple to attempt to latch. He wants to survive and his survival is his mother’s milk. Once he latches on, this first breastfeed enables him to practice his suck, and he will progressively get better and better at it. But that’s just it: he knows how but he is learning. He needs your help, so this is what you can do:

A baby needs to open his mouth really wide when he latches on, as wide as when he yawns. Most mothers I see tell me their baby has too small a mouth and that he cannot open it so wide. Then I ask them to remember that their baby yawns. They must have seen him? Does he open wide? They then realize that they need to ask their baby to open really wide and to wait until he does so before bringing him to the breast.

Naturally, some babies will be better at it than others. Some will learn quickly while others will take a while. Usually, a baby who is born from an easy, unmedicated labour and delivery will do better than the one who went through a hard labour where his mother received an epidural or some pain medication. What also seems to help is when a baby is given to his mother right away and when he lays completely naked on his naked mother’s chest. Another important element is to keep both mom and baby together and to wait until the baby breastfeeds before taking him away to weigh him, to put some drops in his eyes, or to do any type of intervention on him.

Babies who are “undisturbed” in their natural process of being born and who stay with their mother and on her naked chest, uninterrupted, will have an easier time with opening their mouth wide and latching on correctly.

But how do we get a baby to open wide?

We feel pretty powerless in front of babies who, we think, have few abilities. They actually can do a lot more than we realize because they have innate reflexes (which are like instincts). One of those reflexes is the sucking reflex. A baby knows how to breastfeed even in his mother’s belly, as early as at 32 weeks of gestation. Another reflex a baby has is the rooting reflex. This is the reflex he uses to latch on. We see this reflex every time a newborn looks for the breast or when he tries to latch on. He does a slight shake of the head while opening his mouth at the same time. It is during the rooting reflex that he can open his mouth really wide. If we try to have a baby take the breast without this reflex, he will not be able to latch on. The rooting reflex allows him to put his tongue and his lips in the position that is necessary to latch on to the breast perfectly. Without that reflex, the baby just opens his mouth without any intention to suck and he will not able to breastfeed!

The NBCI web site provides good information on this and also presents short video clips that can help you see how a baby should latch. They show you the movement his mouth and jaw should make. Concentrate on the ones that have “latch” in the title.

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