11 Common Latching Problems and How to Solve Them

What to Do When Your Baby Isn't Latching on to Breastfeed

Mommy Soothing
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When a baby latches on correctly, he can more easily remove breast milk from your breasts. The efficient removal is important for both you and your baby. It allows your child to get enough milk to grow healthy and strong while telling your body to make more to build and maintain your supply.

On the other hand, when a baby isn't latching on well, it can lead to a variety of breastfeeding issues. Babies who don't get enough milk may gain weight slowly or even lose weight.

Moms can develop painful breast conditions such as breast engorgement, plugged milk ducts, or mastitis. Plus, the ineffective removal of breast milk can cause a low breast milk supply.

Most babies can latch on and breastfeed well, even if they need a little assistance in the beginning. However, there are a few situations that can make latching on more difficult. If your newborn won't latch on or can't latch on to breastfeed, it's important to get help from your doctor or a lactation professional right away to prevent any problems down the line.

Here are a few common reasons your little one may be having trouble latching on and what you can do about it.

Your Baby Is Fussy

When a baby is too fussy or crying, he may not latch on to breastfeed. There are so many reasons a baby may fussy. If your child is hungry, overtired, or overstimulated, breastfeeding can become harder.

Try to breastfeed when your baby is awake and calm and before he gets too hungry.

If he's screaming and crying, try to console him and calm him down before feeding. Holding and swaddling your child or moving to a quiet area and dimming the lights may help.

Also, if you gently squeeze a few drops of breast milk onto your breast right before you try to latch, the smell and taste of the milk may help.

You can also try to change positions or change sides.

Your Baby Is Too Sleepy

If all your newborn wants to do is sleep, he may not show any interest in latching on. Sometimes the medications given during childbirth can cause the extra sleepiness. If that's the case, the sleepiness will wear off with the medications.

But, many times newborns are just tired. If your baby doesn't wake up to breastfeed, wake him up at least every two to three hours. Try to rouse him by talking to him, unwrapping him, and changing his diaper. Holding him in a different breastfeeding position and making him a little less warm and comfortable may be all it takes.

You Have Large Nipples

Large nipples may be hard for a newborn to latch on to. Even average sized nipples can seem too big if your baby is premature. For your child to latch on well, he needs to take your entire nipple plus a good amount of your areola into his mouth.

If your nipple is filling up your child's mouth as he tries to latch on, he won't be able to grasp any of the surrounding areola along with it.

Therefore, he won't be able to effectively remove breast milk.

You can try to use the suction of a breast pump to make your nipples longer and thinner before you begin to breastfeed. A nipple shield may also be helpful. When it's placed over the nipple, the shape of the shield is smaller and easier for a baby to grasp in his mouth.

Large nipples are only an issue in the early days of breastfeeding. As your child grows, it will become easier for him to latch on directly to your breast.

You Have Large Breasts

It can be awkward and difficult to get your baby latched on properly when you have very big breasts. The size of your breast can prevent you from viewing your nipple and your baby's mouth. It's also harder to hold your breast and position him.

In this situation, the best way to get your baby latching on is to have someone help you in the beginning. Then, as you become comfortable and your baby learns to latch on and breastfeed, you will be able to do it on your own.

You Have Severe Breast Engorgement

Breast engorgement is common, especially in the first few weeks of breastfeeding when your colostrum is turning into transitional breast milk. During the transitional breast milk stage, your milk production increases very quickly and fills up your breasts. When your breasts are so full of breast milk, they can become swollen and hard.

If the skin on your breasts becomes tight and your nipples flatten out, your baby may have a hard time latching on. You can soften up the skin around your nipples and areola and make it easier for your baby to latch on by pumping or hand expressing a little breast milk before you begin to breastfeed.

Your Nipples Are Flat or Inverted

Some babies can latch on to flat and even inverted nipples without any problems. However, sometimes flat or inverted nipples do make it more difficult for a baby to latch.

If your newborn can't latch onto your breast correctly because your nipples don't stick out of your breast, you can try pumping for a minute or two before you begin breastfeeding your baby. The suction of the breast pump may draw out and lengthen your nipples enough for your child to latch on. If that doesn't work, talk to your doctor or a lactation professional about trying a nipple shield.

Your Baby Was Born Premature

A preemie has a small mouth, so it's harder for a preemie to get a good latch. And with less energy to suck and draw the milk out of the breast, preemies can tire out quickly before they get enough breast milk.

A nipple shield can make it easier for a premature baby's tiny mouth to latch on. Or, you may have to pump your breast milk for your preemie until he or she gets a little bigger.

Your Baby Has a Tongue-Tie

If your baby is born with a tongue-tie (ankyloglossia), the piece of tissue that connects your baby's tongue to the lower part of his mouth is attached close to the tip of his tongue. A baby with a tongue-tie can't extend his tongue very far out of his mouth, so it can affect his ability to latch onto your breast correctly.

If your newborn is having latching problems and you suspect a tongue-tie, talk to your doctor and your baby's doctor. The baby's doctor will examine your child's mouth and discuss the need for treatment based on the severity of the tongue-tie.

Your Baby Was Born With a Cleft Lip

When a baby is born with a cleft lip and/or a cleft palate, breastfeeding can be much more difficult. A cleft lip makes it harder for the child to latch on and create a seal around the breast. With a cleft palate, it can be tough for the baby to get the suction needed to pull the breast milk from the breast.

Still, it's not impossible to breastfeed. Get help from your newborn's doctor, a lactation consultant, and the other health care specialists involved with your baby's care. By learning the techniques for breastfeeding a baby with a cleft, and getting started as soon as possible, you have a greater chance of success.

Your Child Has Down Syndrome

Babies born with Down syndrome may have difficulty latching on in the beginning because they tend to have poor muscle tone and a small mouth. However, with time and assistance, children with Down syndrome can certainly breastfeed successfully. Plus, breastfeeding can even help a child with Down syndrome develop coordination and build up strength in their facial muscles.

You can begin breastfeeding as soon as it's safe, even in the delivery room. Put your baby to the breast very often and spend a lot of time holding your baby skin-to-skin. By doing this, you'll be encouraging your child to latch on and breastfeed.

Many babies born with Down syndrome and muscle weakness can breastfeed just fine. But, you'll want to get help from a lactation professional and the health care team very early on to be sure that you're on the right track.

Your Newborn Was Born With Other Special Needs

A baby with a neurological issue may have difficulty forming a seal around the breast or sucking. A baby born with a heart problem can get tired very easily or have trouble breathing and breastfeeding at the same time.

If your baby is born with a health issue, he will need more help with latching on and more time to get breastfeeding started and going well. You may have to pump your breast milk and supplement your child while he's learning.

When to Call the Doctor for Latching Problems

If your child is not latching on and breastfeeding well, she may not be getting enough breast milk. Newborns and young infants can become dehydrated quickly, so call your doctor if:

  • You can't wake your baby up to latch on and breastfeed for most feedings. 
  • Your baby is not having normal amounts of wet diapers: two wet ones a day during the first four days after birth and at least six wet diapers a day after the fifth day.
  • The soft spot on top of your baby's head is sinking into her skull.
  • Your newborn's lips and mouth are dry.

A Word From Verywell

Issues with latching on can interfere with breastfeeding, decrease breastfeeding confidence, and lead to early weaning. But, with the right help, most latching problems can be corrected. Even babies born early or with physical and neurological issues can still learn to latch on and breastfeed.

Breastfeeding isn't always easy, especially in the beginning. Sometimes it's a learning process for both you and your baby. It may take a little work, but with some patience and help, it's certainly possible to turn latching problems into breastfeeding success.

Sources:

Ballard JL, Auer CE, Khoury JC. Ankyloglossia: assessment, incidence, and effect of frenuloplasty on the breastfeeding dyad. Pediatrics. 2002 Nov 1;110(5):e63.

Eidelman, A. I., Schanler, R. J., Johnston, M., Landers, S., Noble, L., Szucs, K., & Viehmann, L. (2012). Policy Statement. Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk. Section on Breastfeeding. Pediatrics, 129(3), e827-e841.

Lawrence, Ruth A., MD, Lawrence, Robert M., MD. Breastfeeding A Guide For The Medical Profession Eighth Edition. Elsevier Health Sciences. 2015.

Reilly S, Reid J, Skeat J. ABM Clinical Protocol# 17: Guidelines for breastfeeding infants with cleft lip, cleft palate, or cleft lip and palate. Breastfeeding Medicine. 2007 Dec 1;2(4):243-50.

Riordan, J., and Wambach, K. Breastfeeding and Human Lactation Fourth Edition. Jones and Bartlett Learning. 2014.

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