It is often said, by those who know breastfeeding, that a good latch is the most important ingredient in the recipe for successful breastfeeding. And it’s true – without a proper latch, breastfeeding will be one long, frustrating struggle. Fortunately, getting a good latch is pretty easy if you just know what to do and what to look out for.
But wait: what is a “latch”?
The term “latch” simply refers to the way in which the baby takes the breast into his mouth. When we say baby is “latched on”, it means he has the nipple in his mouth and his lips sealed around the breast so that he can suck effectively.
Why is the latch so important?
Baby needs to latch on to the breast properly so that he will be able to remove milk from the breast effectively. I’ll give you an example to help you understand why: imagine you have a nice, sweet, juicy wedge of orange in your hand, and you want to suck out the juice. What do you think will work better: sticking a drinking straw into the orange and sucking? Putting your lips against it as if you were kissing it? Or putting the whole thing into your mouth and pressing against it with your lips and tongue? Obviously, you’ll get a lot more juice to drink if you put the orange into your mouth properly. In exactly the same way, baby will get a lot more milk from each suck if he is latched on properly.
There’s another reason why you want baby to be latched on well: a good latch doesn’t hurt. A bad latch, on the other hand, can hurt like the blazes and can cause your nipple to crack and bleed. No-one deserves to go through that.
Defining a “good latch”
Most of the time, if you search for info on a good latch, you will find a lot of descriptions of what it is supposed to look like. However, I have my own definition of a good latch: the latch is good (or perhaps I should say good enough) if both of the following things are true:
- Baby is getting the milk out of the breast effectively – you can tell that this is happening if baby is swallowing regularly
- It doesn’t hurt
I prefer this definition, because at the end of the day, that’s what really matters: baby must get enough to drink without hurting mom. What it looks like is useful –useful enough that I’m going to discuss it in a second – but it’s not the whole story. I’ve seen cases where the latch looked fine, but the mom’s nipples were broken and bleeding (hint: it’s not fine!) or the baby just wasn’t getting any milk out. On the other hand, I’ve seen quite a few cases where the latch looked terrible, but baby was thriving and mom had no pain; in that case, who cares what it looks like? So as we start to discuss what a good latch looks like, just remember that the two criteria I mentioned above are by far the most important things!
What to look for
A good latch is, almost by definition, a deep latch: this means that the nipple is far into the baby’s mouth (or, to put it another way, baby takes a big bite of the breast). You want to have more than just the nipple in baby’s mouth; a part of the areola (that brown area around the nipple) should also be in baby’s mouth. If only the nipple is in baby’s mouth, his gums will “bite” at the nipple and it will very quickly become sore! The areola is a lot tougher; it can handle the pressure from the baby’s gums without getting hurt. Your main aim when you latch baby onto the breast is to get as much of the breast into the baby’s mouth as you can.
When a baby is latched on well, you will usually see the following things:
- Baby’s mouth is wide open – the smaller the baby is, the wider the mouth needs to open to get the breast in.
- The lips are curled out. This means that the “wet” inner part of the lips are against the breast, and that helps baby to form a good seal on the breast. If baby is suckling but his lips are turned in, you can just use a finger to gently turn them out.
- Baby’s chin is right up against the breast. If the chin far from the breast, it means baby isn’t close enough to get a good mouthful of breast.
And, of course, my two most important conditions: it doesn’t hurt, and you can see or hear baby swallowing.
How to get baby to latch on properly
There are a lot of tricks and techniques that you can use to get baby to latch on well. You may or may not need to try all of the technique described below; some babies “get it” a lot quicker than others. If you find something that works for you, then don’t even bother to try the rest.
Let baby do the work
This is always a good place to begin, and it’s the best way to do your first breastfeed. Just lie back and let baby lie on top of you, skin-to-skin. When baby starts looking for the nipple, guide him to the breast, but let him explore the breast at his own pace. In most cases, baby will lick and play with the nipple for a while, and then latch on with no help at all. The funny thing is that leaving baby to latch himself often gives a better result than when we try to help! This is not just for newborns, by the way; it also works well for older babies who are struggling to get a good latch.
Get into position
The first thing you need to do when latching baby is to position him properly – this simply means that when you hold baby, he must easily be able to get to the breast and latch on. I have a whole detailed post on positioning here, but the essence of the matter is this: hold baby close to you, with his tummy turned to you, and his nose opposite your nipple.
Use the nipple to tickle baby’s top lip, and when he opens, bring him closer so that he can get his mouth around the breast. Important: when you bring baby to the breast, pull his body closer and the head will follow. Don’t push on the back of baby’s head – babies have an inborn reflex that makes them push back against your hand, and you and baby will just end up in a fight to see who can push the hardest.
The breast sandwich
What do you do when you need to take a bite of a big, juicy hamburger that’s too big to fit in your mouth? You take it in your hands and squash it, of course. You can do the same thing with your breast to help baby get it into his mouth: take the breast between your thumb and fingers, close to the areola (but not on it!), and squash it to make it flatter and easier for baby to get into his mouth. Just take care that you squash it flat in the same direction as the baby’s mouth lies. Once baby has the breast in his mouth and is sucking, you need to move your fingers away from the areola (or let go of the breast entirely). It’s important to start with your fingers far enough from the nipple that baby can latch deeply on the breast without your fingers getting in the way. The breast sandwich is a very useful technique if you have large breasts or if your nipples are flat.
The nipple flip
Also known as the flipple technique. This is one of the most effective ways to help a baby get a nice, deep latch – it works almost every time! It’s a bit difficult to describe on paper, but bear with me. Basically, it’s an exaggeration of the “nose-to-nipple” position I described earlier: you’re trying to get a big part of the breast tissue below the nipple into the baby’s mouth:
- Start with baby positioned nose-to-nipple
- Use your fingers to “flip” the nipple up toward baby’s nose. So now you have nothing but breast in front of baby’s mouth; the nipple is up at baby’s nose somewhere.
- Bring baby’s chin up against the breast. This will prompt him to open his mouth
- When baby’s mouth opens, gently let go of the nipple so that the breast (that part below the nipple) rolls into baby’s mouth. The nipple will be the last thing to slip in under baby’s top lip.
- If that doesn’t make sense, watch this video on YouTube.
What if it hurts?
A good latch is not supposed to hurt! However, in the beginning it is quite normal for your nipples to hurt for a few seconds when baby starts to suck. Let baby latch on and slowly count to twenty……… does it still hurt? If it does, it’s best to take baby off the breast and re-latch, because the latch is probably not deep enough. Don’t think you’ll “tough it out” for this feed – it only takes one feed with a shallow latch to cause a cracked nipple, and once the nipple is cracked even a good latch will hurt! Rather re-latch baby ten times and keep your nipples happy.
Just a note: if you need to take baby off the breast to re-latch him, don’t just pull the nipple out while baby is still sucking – it will hurt! You first need to break baby’s grip: put your little finger into baby’s mouth, all the way between the gums, and pop the nipple out of his mouth. Another option is to pull baby in so close that you block his nose, so that he has to let go to breathe (baby won’t suffocate, promise. Given a choice between sucking and breathing, babies always go for breathing.)
A word of encouragement
All of this makes latching a baby sound really complicated. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. Many of you will never need to use any fancy tricks to get baby to latch on well. But even if you need to use every trick in the book, take heart: it really gets easier as time goes by. Not just because you and baby get better at breastfeeding, but because baby’s mouth gets bigger – it’s easier to take a big bite if you have a big mouth! And one day, a week or a few weeks from now, you will think back and wonder “why on earth did I ever think this was hard?” And on that day, you will be so glad that you took the time to learn.