Rockville Lactation

Lynnette Hafken, MA, IBCLC

Lactation Consultant

text (fastest response) or call: (240) 888-2123

email: [email protected]

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When Your Baby Won't Latch

It's normal to have a lot of feelings when your baby can't or won't latch onto your breast. You might feel sad or frustrated, even though you know your baby doesn't hate you or your breasts. It's hard not to feel rejected as a mother. You might also feel guilty for wanting to keep trying to breastfeed when it seems like your baby doesn't want to. But you're not being selfish for trying to breastfeed.

This is not your fault!

It's common for babies to have trouble latching onto the breast for different reasons. There's probably nothing wrong with your breasts or nipples (and even if they are hard for your baby to manage, like with flat nipples, that's not your fault either!). Learning to tie their shoelaces might be hard and frustrating too, but it's worth the struggle. Helping your baby learn to breastfeed is worth it too.

Why do some babies not latch?

Sometimes a baby can have trouble latching onto their mother's breast. There are a few reasons why this can happen. Some babies might have nipples that are flat or go inward (inverted). Others might not know how to suck properly. A baby could also have a tongue tie that makes it hard for them to latch on. 

Sometimes, a baby's mouth might be too small to latch onto their mother's bigger nipples. If a mother's breasts are very full and tight, it could also make it hard for a baby to latch. Lastly, a baby might be too tired or upset to breastfeed.

Let's talk about babies who can attach to the breast, but sometimes don't. It could happen that they latched when they were born, but later forget how to do it, or only latch sometimes and not always. They may even cry and fight when they are near the breast. 

Try latching when you and your baby are calm. However, if your baby cries and fights when they come near the breast, this requires a different approach. Here are some reasons why a baby may do this:

  • The baby may have had a bad experience during a previous breastfeeding attempt where they were treated roughly.
  • The baby may be very impatient and want to be fed right away.
  • The baby may have learned that it's easier to get milk from a bottle than from the breast.
  • Sometimes, there could be a physical reason for a baby crying, like a birth injury, so it's important to tell their doctor.

The most important thing to do (aside from feeding the baby and keeping up your milk production) is to help your baby feel comfortable and happy being near your breast. To do this, you can start with leaning back and cuddling skin-to-skin for a few days. Your baby may naturally try to latch on in this position, but it's best to let them do it themselves instead of trying to make it happen. Just let your baby explore and try latching on their own, without any pressure.

Now, it's time to help your baby learn to trust your breast as a source of food. Your breast will provide milk when your baby needs it and until your baby feels full.

Two great ways to do this are (1) use a curved tip syringe or supplemental nursing system (SNS):

This mother is using a homemade SNS. It works by delivering milk in a tube to the baby as they suckle at the breast.

Baby latched with SNS tube going into their mouth

(2) Give your baby a bottle of milk first, to satisfy their hunger a little. Then, when they are feeling more relaxed (but still a bit hungry), try to breastfeed them. This is like having an appetizer with the bottle, followed by the main meal at the breast. Another way is to give your baby a full bottle of milk first, like a meal. Then, offer the breast as a dessert. Both of these strategies can help your baby remember that the breast is a good place to get milk, and can help make breastfeeding a positive experience for both of you. (instructions here). 

What is the difference between a bottle appetizer and a bottle meal? It's not really that different. It just depends on what your baby needs and how quickly your milk comes out. If your baby only needs a little bit from the bottle and then can drink from your breast easily, then it's easy to stop using the bottle. But if your milk supply is low, your baby is always hungry, or your milk comes out slowly, it might take longer to stop using the bottle. Sometimes, using a bottle might be part of your feeding plan for a long time, but that's okay! You're still a breastfeeding mom. 

Eventually, your baby will learn to love breastfeeding, and then you can stop supplementing.