The Breast Crawl: Letting baby take the lead

Have you ever felt like breastfeeding is just an immensely complicated thing? If you’ve never actually breastfed a baby, all the talk about positioning and latching and techniques can be really intimidating!  The funny thing is, though, that it’s only us mothers who find it so complicated; babies are born knowing exactly how to start breastfeeding. All the talk about breastfeeding techniques, the books, the classes – they’re there to help the mom. If you leave a newborn baby to follow their own instincts, nine times out of ten they’ll get it right by themselves.

Breast crawl

This image is from the original breast crawl video on www.breastcrawl.org – go check it out!

Letting Nature take its Course

If you have a natural, unmedicated birth, you have a chance to witness an amazing phenomenon called the breast crawl. After birth, babies typically go through a predictable series of behaviours:

First, there’s the birth cry. This is just a “Hello, World!” that helps baby take his first breaths. At this point, the ONLY place baby should be going is straight onto mom’s abdomen or chest, skin-to-skin. This is the place where they will go through the rest of their behaviours.

After the initial cry, baby will usually take a rest. Being born was hard work! Baby will usually lie still for a while, just recovering. This can take anything from a couple of minutes to more than half an hour. The important thing at this point is just to be patient and let baby get ready to breastfeed. Often, nurses and doctors get impatient and try to force baby to the breast before he is ready. Guess what? It doesn’t work, and everybody ends up frustrated!

The first sign that baby is getting ready to breastfeed is an increase in activity. Initially, baby may just start by looking around (he’s looking for you, mommy!). The dark brown of the nipple and areola act like a target for baby to focus on. Baby’s hands may also start to move, feeling for the nipple. And the dead giveaway: the mouth starts to move. Baby may start chewing, licking, and even try to suck his fingers or your skin. At this point, baby is very close to taking his first feed. His little head will start bobbing as he looks for the nipple.

At this point, the instinct is to move baby to the breast. But if you are patient and you can wait a while, you will see something almost magical: baby actually crawls to the breast! He kicks out with those little legs, scrambles and pushes with his arms and wriggles himself up your chest until the nipple is at his mouth. Just keep an eye on baby – sometimes the crawling gets a bit enthusiastic, and you may have to stop him falling over sideways!

Once baby’s mouth is at the nipple, he will start to lick and mouth it. (Did you know that the natural oils on your nipple smell like amniotic fluid? It’s another way that your body helps baby to find the nipple. Mother nature doesn’t leave anything to chance!) After a while, baby will open that little mouth, latch on, and start to suck as if he’s been doing it his whole life. And just like that, you’re breastfeeding. No fancy positions, no techniques, nothing to remember – just the miracle of nature.

Here’s some videos you can look at to see this amazing process in action:

  • This is a short and sweet video (only 48 seconds!) showing the baby crawling to the breast and latching on
  • This is a longer video (about 10 minutes) where you can see baby going through all the steps. The video only starts where baby is starting to get active, so it will give you a good idea of how patient you need to be! Most of the action is in the last 2 minutes.

Pain Medications and the Breast Crawl

If you had a natural birth with pain medication (especially pethidine, which is routinely given in many hospitals), baby may be very sleepy after the birth. One of the big dangers of using pain medication during labour – a danger that no-one ever mentions! – is that it suppresses the normal newborn feeding reflexes. I would definitely, one hundred percent, recommend that you still put baby skin-to-skin and try to let him latch himself; it may just take considerably longer (we’re talking several hours). If baby doesn’t latch at all, it may be time to call in professional help.

What about a complicated birth?

Obviously, the above scenario is only feasible after a natural birth with no complications. If you had a c-section, or there was some sort of medical emergency after the birth, things will necessarily look a bit different in those first few minutes and hours. Fortunately, all is not lost. The breast crawl instinct is actually present for quite a long time after birth. So even if you didn’t get to do it immediately after the birth, you still have a chance.

For a baby born by c-section, I would recommend you put baby skin-to skin immediately as soon as you can. Obviously, you don’t want baby kicking at your wound, so put him a bit higher up, between your breasts. Since your lower body will probably still be dead from the spinal, it’s a good idea to have someone else standing by – your partner, mother, friend or a nurse – you know, in case one of those enthusiastic kicks launches baby off the bed! In all other respects, it will follow the exact same procedure.

If there were medical complications and baby had to be admitted to NICU or you were sick, the delay just gets a bit longer. But it’s never too late – even if baby is two months old at the time and drinking form a bottle, it’s still worth a try!

Want to try the Breast Crawl?

If you want to try the breast crawl for your first breastfeed, you should discuss it with your gynae or midwife well ahead of time. Amazingly, many (I dare say most) medical professionals have never heard of this amazing phenomenon. It’s just not taught at medical school. You can direct them to the excellent UNICEF website on the Breast Crawl, www.breastcrawl.org, which has a page with scientific information aimed specifically at healthcare providers. It also has an excellent video (come to think of it, that video was the first time I ever saw or heard of the breast crawl!). I recommend you also visit the website and have a look at the information; it really is a fascinating topic.

I hope that your first breastfeed will be an amazing, memorable event; that it will leave you in awe of the way your baby and your body can work together. And if you’re not the shy type, send us a video of your breast crawl to share with the Love & Breast Milk community!

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