What is a great latch?
Every breastfeeding parent is in search of the ideal latch, and every passerby seems to have their own definition of what the perfect latch looks like. It is important to remember that however you do it, the method needs to work for you. Since every parent and every baby is unique, latching on cannot be a one-size-fits-all affair. Your latch may change based on your position, the fullness of your breasts, latching on the right vs the left side, and even the age of your baby- Think 1 year-old breastfeeding gymnastics!
A great latch allows the breasts to be emptied and the baby to get their meal in a timely matter without any pain. If these three criteria are met then what the latch looks like is irrelevant.
Why does a great latch matter?
A great latch is the foundation of a great breastfeeding relationship and impacts all other areas of lactation.
A great latch will:
- Promote efficient feedings, by allowing your baby to access your milk as easily as possible
- Be sustainable, by ensuring a pain-free experience for you
- Maintain your supply, by adequately removing milk so that more will be made
- Protect against mastitis and blocked ducts, by making sure the milk is drained out and not trapped in the breast
A good latch does not hurt
The number one message I want to get out is this: Regardless of how a latch looks, if there is pain present then something is wrong! A good latch does not hurt. There can sometimes be soreness in the first two weeks after birth as you and your baby learn this new skill, but it should be closer to tenderness than to pain. This tenderness should not lead to cracking or bleeding, should not last throughout the feeding, and should not be present past the first few weeks. Your nipple should come out after the feeding as round as before with no pinching or squashing visible.
I have helped many families who had been told that their latch looked great despite the presence of nipple damage and pain. If you know something is wrong, keep looking for qualified help and seek out an IBCLC.
How to latch your baby in an upright feeding position
These are some general guidelines to help you achieve a great asymmetric latch. Asymmetric means that instead of pointing your nipple to the centre of your baby’s mouth like a bulls eye, the nipple is instead pointed up to the roof of their mouth. In this position your nipple is protected from the baby’s gums and more of your breast tissue fills their mouth, which is important for good milk drainage. In my experience a good asymmetric latch is the key to solving or avoiding nipple pain, and can sometimes be the only solution a breastfeeding dyad needs.
For information on feeding in a laid-back position, click here.
1. Don’t lift your breast!
For most of us, when our breasts are out of a bra they don’t sit as high on our chests as they do with the help of straps and underwire. That’s okay! It is important to start your baby low and bring them up towards the nipple so that you don’t need to support your breast for the entire feeding.
To illustrate why this matters, let’s try an experiment: Imagine you are getting ready to feed your baby in the cross cradle position. Your left hand lifts and shapes your left breast, and your right hand brings the baby up to latch on. Now, as soon as you let go with your left hand, the breast falls back where it normally rests, (thanks, gravity) and you have an annoyed baby who is no longer latched.
The solution is to shape the breast without lifting it, which usually means holding your baby lower than you had been previously. By starting your baby low and bringing them up to the breast, they should be able to maintain the latch without you having to use both hands. This frees you up your hand to change positions, snap a #brelfie, send a text, or have a drink yourself!
For many people this means that a breastfeeding pillow is not needed, and in fact may make latching on harder for you. If the breastfeeding pillow raises your baby higher than where your breast naturally lies, it can actually contribute to a difficult or painful latch. If you suspect that your breastfeeding pillow is too tall, try latching on without it. Experiment with latching your baby low, and then using thinner pillows to support your arm and wrist for comfort once you like how your baby is attached. This way the pillows can support your great latch without interfering.
2. Align their top lip to your nipple
Okay, so the breast hasn’t been lifted up. Now what? We need to know where to aim the baby’s latch. I focus on achieving an asymmetric latch, so we start by aligning their top lip with your nipple. By doing this we help to ensure that your baby will lean their head back to open wide, which will protect your nipple in the roof of their mouth and offer lots of breast tissue for their tongue to suckle underneath. In contrast, a symmetric latch has the baby’s mouth lined directly with the nipple, which can contribute to:
- Nipple pain, by making it harder to get a deep latch
- Incomplete breast drainage, since the tongue has less breast tissue to stimulate
- Coughing/sputtering at the breast, as the baby can’t have an extended neck and may therefore have a harder time managing the flow of milk
If your baby isn’t opening wide when you first line them up nose to nipple, bringing their top lip to touch the nipple will often trigger them to open their mouth and be ready to latch.
3. Bring baby on through the shoulders
It is important that there is no pressure on the back of your baby’s head when you latch them on. Pressure or force behind the head can cause your baby to resist or push back, which will make latching even harder. It can also undo the asymmetric latch we have set up, because instead of keeping the head tilted back, pressure on the back of the head can “scoop” the baby on and narrow their jaw. Try it yourself! If you tilt your head back and open your mouth (as if you were taking a drink) but then push on the back of your head, your chin comes in towards your chest and your mouth closes. This is exactly what can happen at the breast!
In cross cradle your fingers should be supporting the side of your baby’s face, with the back of their head free. Your thumb’s webbing will support the nape of the neck just under the head. This way, your baby’s head and neck are supported without any pressure coming from behind.
Once your baby is lined up, bring them towards your body with the pressure from your wrist and forearm focused between their shoulders. By bringing them straight in towards you we allow them to lead with their chin, and maintain that extended neck and wide open mouth. It may help to imagine you are a fancy waiter ‘serving’ your baby to the breast with a straight arm and wrist.
4. Hold your baby close during the feed
If all goes well, we now have a nice deep asymmetric latch. How do we maintain it?
It’s important to hold your baby close on latch and throughout the feeding. A young baby will not have the strength to maintain a latch if you let go of the support, and some cases of nipple pain during a feeding can be resolved entirely by making sure they are held close. The closer they are held the less likely they are to slip down to the tip of the nipple (ouch!) or lose the latch entirely.
Making sure they are in good contact with your body will also help to trigger their nursing instincts. If you find the sucking and drinking is slowing down over the feeding, try tucking their body in closer to you. In cross cradle this can be achieved by bringing your elbow in towards your body, and not sticking out to the side. This movement keeps their bum snug against you, and helps the latch by keeping their chin in the breast and their nose away. By tucking them in, your baby may be reminded about what they’re doing, and often we will see the nibbles and drinks start back up.
Something’s Still Not Right
If latching is a struggle or you are in pain, it’s important to get qualified breastfeeding support. If you know something is wrong, don’t wait to seek help! Breastfeeding is a new experience for you and your baby, and it can take practise to learn. An IBCLC can evaluate your unique situation, personally assess you and your baby, and create a plan tailored to your needs. Book an appointment or contact me today to see how I can help.