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Breastfeeding Basics

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

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.

Here are some tips to help ensure a proper latch -- particularly the first few times you breast feed. Place your opposite hand underneath your breast and, using your thumb, gently push up under your areola, and position more of your breast in your baby's mouth, making sure not to get your fingers inside.

Still having problems? Huotari suggests repositioning your baby's head so that he or she doesn't have to twist or turn the neck to reach your breast.

So, how do you know if your baby is properly "latched on?" First, if your baby's lips are puckered inward, or if you can see their gums, the "latch" may not be complete.

If your baby is feeding properly, you should hear only a low-pitched swallowing noise -- not a sucking or smacking noise -- and you may see the jaw motioning back and forth, a sign that a successful feeding is taking place.

  "What many new mothers don't realize is that breastfeeding is really a very quiet and relaxing time. If your baby is latched on properly they eat very quietly," says Pat Sterna, IBCLC, a lactation counselor from Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.

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