Latching and unlatching repeatedly while feeding does not mean that breastfeeding is not working. It may simply be due to your child’s discomfort or too much or too little milk flow. Some infants suck to relieve stress or pain. Other babies may latch on and off because it’s more difficult to feed when they are sick.
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Before we start…
Your newborn is still adjusting to a new environment. In their first week of life, it will be quite common to see them troubleshoot by latching on and off. It’s how they explore and determine the most comfortable position for breastfeeding.
According to Stanford Children’s Health, here are some signs of ineffective sucking that you should watch out for:
- Resists latching on
- Falls asleep within 5 minutes of latching, or after sucking for 2 to 3 minutes
- Doesn’t suck almost continuously for the first 7 to 10 minutes of feeding
Just because your baby keeps on latching and unlatching, doesn’t mean that it’ll be that way forever. There are some reasons why babies latch on and off repeatedly. Let’s discuss them below, and see what options can be done.
Maybe your child isn’t able to latch properly, and the constant latch-unlatch is an effort to find that deep, sustained latch that they need.
A good latch provides the most amount of milk for the infant while causing less to no pain for the nursing parent.
The following guideline from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) illustrates three simple steps to ensure a good latch.
If you still have trouble sustaining a good latch with your child, it is best to seek consultation with a lactation counselor or an experienced healthcare provider.
Part of a good latch is actually good positioning. The current position you and your infant use might be uncomfortable for them.
Most mothers use the cradle hold or the cross-cradle hold, which involves placing your infant on your arms with the head on one side facing a breast. You can change your hold to find out which is the most comfortable (and productive) for you and your child. Other positions include the following:
This hold is beneficial for parents who had undergone a cesarean section, also termed a belly birth. Some babies prefer being fed from an upright position. This hold makes your child less prone to acid reflux (yes, newborns get those too!).
This position lets your baby take charge of when and where to feed. Make sure that you provide enough support by holding their head, shoulders and upper back properly.
This is also another position for parents who had undergone a cesarean section. Use your forearm to create a cradling position with your child. In this position, make sure that you use tight beddings and a firm bed. Remove all loose items in the area, such as pillows, toys and other linens. This will help prevent SIDS.
Sometimes, your infant might just prefer the other breast. Try latching them to the other breast, and try to alternate breasts later within the day or on the following day.
Problems with milk flow
High milk flow
Nursing parents with a lot of milk are blessed in the sense that they don’t need to worry if their child will have enough milk. The problem is that it may come out too fast.
If the flow of milk out the nipple is too fast, your child may have a hard time swallowing all of it at that pace. Infants in this situation might end up unlatching to protect themselves from swallowing the milk into their lungs instead.
Usually, parents with this situation will see their baby’s mouth drooling with some milk and sputtering. As they unlatch, milk may be continuously draining (or even shooting straight out of the nipple).
There are some ways to help your baby deal with this amount of milk. Before feeding time, take a few minutes to pump out some milk first (unless it’s colostrum, in which case, make sure to give that to your child as soon as it comes out).
You can store this extra milk in the refrigerator or freezer for later use.
While breastfeeding, you can pause for a minute or two if you see your child latching and unlatching repeatedly. Reduce or remove breast compression to lessen the amount of milk coming out.
The laid-back or straddle-hold position can help with excessive milk flow — with the help of gravity, leaning slightly backward can also lessen your milk flow.
If you notice that your milk supply just doesn’t stop, you might have hyperlactation syndrome. Although this may die down after two weeks or so, it’s best to seek to consult with a lactation counselor regarding this.
Low milk flow
Some parents may be at the other end of the spectrum, having low amounts of milk. Your baby keeps on latching and unlatching because it’s their way of troubleshooting low milk supply.
In other cases, the expression of milk before feeding time can be the culprit.
Before feeding time, try to massage your breasts or chest area. You can stimulate letdown by pumping for a minute, then attempt to latch as soon as you see the milk flowing out. During feeding, compress the breast to stimulate more milk flow.
Some parents recommend taking postnatal vitamins and supplements. Speak with your lactation counselor or healthcare provider before starting on these.
The nipple is their pacifier
The act of sucking from the nipple is also a way to calm babies when they’re feeling anxious, frightened, stressed, or in pain.
If you see your child feeding irregularly, with the act of latching and unlatching, they might just need to suck to calm down but aren’t necessarily hungry. This is called non-nutritive sucking.
A pacifier is a well-known alternative. It may be given for infants at least one month or older but only if they are about to sleep, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. If you plan to use a pacifier, it’s always best to confirm this with your pediatrician beforehand.
Your baby might be sick
Some infants have trouble latching because they’re sick. This is especially true for babies with a stuffy nose. Breastfeeding or chestfeeding is always coordinated with breathing through the nose.
If your child’s nose is congested, it becomes more difficult for them to feed properly. They end up taking more frequent breaks to catch their breath.
A common solution to this is nasal saline drops. Choose saline drops especially formulated for newborns and infants. Instill around 2 drops per nostril a few minutes before feeding, and make sure to observe your child during this period.
Make sure to bring your child to a pediatrician to rule out any other illnesses.
Gas and reflux
For other children, reflux and gassiness can cause discomfort while breastfeeding. Infants respond to this by latching and unlatching constantly. Some may grunt, assume a stretching position, or cry while breastfeeding.
Solutions to this include regular, frequent burping and revising the diet of either the nursing parent or the child. Lessen your intake of coffee, spicy and acidic foods. These can irritate your child’s tummy.
If your baby is on mixed feeding, you might need to check your chosen formula with your pediatrician. They might offer a gentler formulation for your child.
Which formulas are good for babies with reflux?
Parents have good feedback with Enfamil Gentlease and Enfamil Nutramigen. However, this is not an endorsement — it is always best to seek advice from your doctor as they choose a certain formula on a case-to-case basis to make sure it is the right choice for your child.
How do I store my excess breastmilk? Can I give it to my child within the next few days?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have come up with recommended guidelines in storing breastmilk for later use. The length of time you can store milk depends on the temperature or storage type.
It’s always best to troubleshoot first before deciding whether breastfeeding or chestfeeding is not for you and your infant. There is a multitude of reasons behind the constant latching-unlatching process.
If you’ve tried adjusting and it still isn’t resolved, seek to consult with a lactation counselor or a healthcare provider to discuss your options and for further evaluation.