Perfecting the Latch

Perfecting the Latch

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Easy steps to breastfeeding just right

Breastfeeding seems like the most natural and instinctive act in the world, and it is—eventually. Once you get the hang of nursing, it’s easy, cheap, convenient, and pretty wonderful. But make no mistake, there’s a steep learning curve for both you and your baby in the beginning, and it’ll probably take a few weeks of practice before nursing becomes effortless.

For most people there’s one particularly tricky part of breastfeeding, and that’s getting your baby to latch on correctly to your breast. A good, solid latch is the foundation for the entire breastfeeding experience. Get it right, and the rest will likely fall into place. Get it wrong, and you may end up with sore, cracked nipples, and a baby who’s not getting enough milk. That’s not a fun situation for any mom, and especially not for a Solo Mom—you’ll have enough on your plate without having to contend with persistent nipple pain and a perpetually hungry baby.

The good news is that getting a proper latch is not rocket science. Anyone can master it, provided they have good, detailed instructions. Like, for example, those below.

Step 1: Grab a whole bunch of pillows

When it comes to breastfeeding, what you’re doing with your back, arms, and shoulders is almost as important as what you’re doing with your breast. You’ll need to be relaxed and comfortable before you get started, or you’ll end up strained and contorted, and your position won’t be right for the latch. You’ll need a pillow behind your lower back to help you sit up straight, at least one pillow on your lap to bring the baby up to the level of your breast, and another pillow under the arm you’re using to hold your breast. Use a footstool to keep your lap high enough for baby to comfortably reach the breast.

Step 2: Get your baby ready for business

A sleepy baby just won’t latch on correctly, so the first order of business is to rouse your drowsy newborn. It’ll take some experimentation to figure out what works to stimulate your little one, but when all else fails, stripping baby down to the diaper is a surefire way to wake ‘em up.

Step 3: Line everything up

Your baby should be lying on his or her side with his or her belly facing your belly, and with head, shoulders, and hips in a straight line. The baby’s mouth should be directly in front of your nipple so baby doesn’t need to turn his or her head at all. Grasp the back of your baby’s head with the hand opposite the breast you will be offering.

Step 4: Make the breast manageable for baby

You’re going to need to use your other hand to prepare the breast for your baby. Lift your breast up and out, with your palm and fingers underneath and thumb on top. It may seem odd at first, but holding your breast keeps the weight of it off baby’s lower jaw, which will enable a proper latch.

Step 5: Wait for the wide-open mouth (seriously, accept no substitutes!)

Now pay attention, because we’ve come to the most important step. Your baby’s mouth will probably open as soon as your nipple touches the lip, and you will be tempted to stick the nipple in and just start nursing. But if the baby’s mouth is not open wide, he or she will clamp down on just the tip of the nipple, which will give you sore and cracked nipples and prevent the baby from getting enough milk. Wait until the baby’s mouth is gaping open. If your baby’s not opening wide enough, try using the index finger of the hand supporting your breast to press firmly down on baby’s chin.

Step 6: Bring your baby to the breast (not the breast to the baby)

Your baby will close his or her mouth a second after it opens, so you need to be ready. As soon as you see the mouth gaping, immediately place that open mouth right on to the breast—not just the nipple, but as much of the areola as possible. The goal is to place the lower jaw on first and to get your nipple as far back into baby’s mouth as you can.

Step 7: Break a bad latch

As you can see, there are a lot of factors to coordinate to get a good latch, so don’t be surprised it if takes a few tries before you get it right. You may be tempted to just let the baby stay on and nurse, even if the latch isn’t great: don’t! It’ll hurt you and keep your baby from getting adequate milk. If the latch isn’t good, take the baby off by inserting a finger in the corner of the mouth. Then just try again until you get it right.

Step 8: Kick back and relax

Well, as much as you’re able. It’s not a walk in the park at first, but take heart: after the first few days, when your nipples adjust to their new job, breastfeeding should start to feel comfortable if the latch is correct. If it continues to hurt, that’s probably a clue that there’s something wrong with the latch and you need some professional assistance. A good lactation consultant will be able to assess the problem and resolve it quickly. For tips on finding breastfeeding support, check out our roundup of free nursing resources.

Best of luck, and happy latching!

Nicole C. Kear, is the author of Now I See You: A Memoir, recently published by St. Martin’s Press. Kear, who lives in New York City, is also an editor, speaker, and mother of three.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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