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Breastfeeding Basics

What every new mom needs to know about baby's first feeding, latching on, and letting down.

WebMD Feature

Ask any expert, and they'll tell you that breastfeeding is the most natural of a woman's mothering instincts -- an almost indescribable urge, some say, to both nurture and nourish your new born child.

But as any experienced mom can tell you, the moves and motions of feeding a newborn might feel anything but normal or natural, at least in the beginning. Mother Nature may be sending breastfeeding signals your way, but when it comes to knowing exactly what to do, you could find yourself at a complete loss.

"Lots of women wonder why, if breastfeeding is such a normal, natural thing, the skills don't just magically appear," says Jan Wenk, IBCLC, certified lactation counselor at NYU Medical Center in New York City.

The answer, she says, is simply a lack of exposure to the process itself. "A generation or two ago, little girls watched their mother's breastfeed, sisters watched each other -- and women generally had a support system as well as role models they could emulate," says Wenk.

Today, she says, many women don't have any experience on which to draw -- so it's not uncommon for some to feel awkward or even uncomfortable.

The good news is that with just a little bit of knowledge and a tiny bit of patience, you can quickly and easily master the art of breastfeeding, while increasing your comfort level at the same time.

Baby to Breast: Latching On

In the same way that you are learning to breastfeed, your baby is also learning to eat. But as natural as the suckling instinct is, don't be surprised if your new little bundle of joy has a bit of trouble mastering what experts call "latching on."

"In essence, this is the way a baby needs to attach to their mother's breast to receive milk," says Carol Huotari, IBCLC, a certified lactation counselor and manager of the Breastfeeding Information Center at La Leche League International in Schaumberg, Ill.

In addition, having a good "latch" also helps mom avoid sore nipples and keeps the breasts from becoming engorged with milk, which in turn can decrease the risk of infection.

To help ensure a good latch, hold your breast and touch your nipple to the center of your baby's lips, Huotari says. This will invoke what is called the "rooting reflex," sending a signal to your baby to open his or her mouth.

As this occurs, she says gently pull your baby toward your breast, allowing your nipple and at least one inch of your entire areola (the dark area surrounding your nipple) to disappear into your baby's mouth. Your baby's lips should look full and pouting, as if they were blowing you a kiss.

"One of the biggest mistakes women make is giving their baby only their nipple to suck. In order for proper latching to take place, much more of the breast must go into the baby's mouth. This is one reason why it's so important that the mouth be as wide as wide as possible when a nursing session begins," Huotari tells WebMD.

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