Many babies have difficulty latching on to the breast for the first few days after birth. However, continued difficulty latching can be a sign of an underlying issue that needs addressing.

When a baby has difficulty latching, it can be stressful for lactating parents. However, an individual can try several strategies that might help.

These include changing the feeding process, making sure the baby and the person feeding the baby are comfortable, and ensuring skin-to-skin contact with the baby.

This article outlines the various causes of babies not latching during chestfeeding or breastfeeding, offers advice on how to treat the issue, and more.

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In the first few days of life, it’s common for a baby to need some practice to get a good latch. If they just can’t seem to get the hang of it, though, it might indicate a larger concern.

Some babies may have issues latching due to conditions affecting the mouth or tongue, such as:

  • a tongue-tie, which is an unusually thick or tight band of tissue under the tongue
  • a cleft lip, which is a split in the upper lip
  • a cleft palate, which is a split in the roof of the mouth

Difficulty latching may also occur if a baby has difficulty remaining alert or coordinating sucking, swallowing, and breathing actions.

This can happen for many reasons, including:

Learn more about how to chestfeed or breastfeed.

The following steps may help with the process:

  1. Start by making sure the lactating person is comfortable.
  2. Position the baby with their belly turned toward the caregiver. Make sure the baby can move their head freely at all times. Support them with a hand at the base of their skull, not on the back of the head.
  3. Position the baby so the nipple is pointing toward their nose. The baby’s head should be tilted back a little bit, not tucked in toward their chest.
  4. Gently brush the nipple on the baby’s lips until they open their mouth wide.
  5. When the baby’s mouth is wide open, gently pull the baby’s body close. The nipple should point slightly up and reach the back of the baby’s mouth. For the parent’s comfort, they should move the baby’s body to meet the nipple rather than moving the nipple to meet the baby.
  6. When latched correctly, the baby will have the full areola in their mouth, not just the nipple. The baby’s lips should flip outward like a fish. If they do not, a person should try gently flipping them outward.

For people who are still struggling to achieve a good latch, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends the following:

  • moving to a quiet, calm place
  • ensuring skin-to-skin contact with the baby
  • letting the baby find the nipple on their own while using one hand to support their neck, shoulders, and hips

People can also access La Leche League for more tips and support for chestfeeding or breastfeeding.

The Nationwide Children’s Hospital (NCH) offers the following tips to help with latching and associated issues:

  • For babies who have difficulty with latching: Try making skin-to-skin contact with the baby.
  • For babies who are sleepy and do not always provide cues for feeding: Try waking the baby to feed every 2–3 hours.
  • For babies who begin falling asleep at the breast before finishing feeding: Try gently massaging the breast downward and inward toward the nipple to deliver milk into the baby’s mouth.
  • For babies who do not latch consistently: Try pumping one breast while chestfeeding or breastfeeding with the other.

If the above tips do not improve latching and nursing, a person can talk with a pediatrician or a certified lactation consultant for further advice.

If there is a medical reason interfering with the baby’s ability to latch, a pediatrician will work to identify the cause and suggest specific treatments.

According to the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom, some common nursing problems include:

A person who is concerned about these issues can contact a medical professional for treatment and advice.

The NHS recommends hand-expressing breast milk and colostrum for babies who are not chestfeeding or breastfeeding well.

Colostrum is a protein-rich form of breast milk that the body produces during pregnancy. It helps to support the baby’s immune system.

People who wish to hand express their colostrum will need to do so 8–12 times every 24 hours, the NHS suggests.

The person can then give the baby the colostrum using a syringe or spoon. Giving colostrum will also encourage the baby to feed from the breast.

Consider talking with a midwife or lactation consultant for further information on hand expressing colostrum.

Alternatives to breast milk

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusive chestfeeding or breastfeeding for the first 6 months after birth because of the unique health benefits that breast milk provides.

However, lactating parents who do not produce enough breast milk may consider supplementing with infant formula. According to the NHS, formula can provide the nutrients babies need to grow and develop, but it does not protect them from infections.

As such, most medical professionals agree that people should offer breast milk whenever possible.

A person should contact a lactation consultant, midwife, or doctor if their baby has continued difficulty latching the first few days after birth.

A medical professional who is trained in human lactation may check to make sure there are no underlying medical issues preventing the baby from latching and nursing.

People should also contact a medical professional if they are experiencing certain issues with their breasts, such as:

  • pain or tenderness
  • sore or cracked nipples
  • warmth
  • tightness or hardness
  • lumps
  • underproduction or overproduction of breast milk

Some of the above issues may indicate a need for medical treatment. Others may resolve following certain adjustments to the nursing procedure.

Below are some answers to frequently asked questions about latching.

How do you breastfeed a baby that won’t latch?

Some things people can do to encourage a baby to latch during chestfeeding or breastfeeding include:

  • moving to a quiet, calm place
  • making skin-to-skin contact with the baby
  • massaging the breast using gentle downward and inward strokes toward the nipple to help deliver milk into the baby’s mouth

If the above methods do not help with latching, a person can try expressing their breast milk and feeding it to the baby using a syringe, spoon, or cup.

Why does my baby act hungry but won’t latch?

If a baby is acting hungry but won’t latch, it could be due to a variety of factors.

Most commonly, it’s because the baby isn’t feeling well or something about the nursing environment has changed. Occasionally, it can be a sign that the breast milk supply has decreased.

Alternatively, there may be a medical issue preventing the baby from latching.

It is best to see a medical professional who specializes in lactation support to determine the reason the baby is not latching when hungry.

Latching is an acquired skill between a lactating parent and an infant, and most latching difficulties resolve with time.

If latching issues persist beyond the first few days after birth, talking with a birthing professional, such as a midwife, or certified lactation consultant can help. These healthcare professionals can observe the nursing process and offer tips and advice on how to improve latching.

If the issue persists, a person can contact their baby’s pediatrician to determine whether an underlying cause is responsible for the baby’s difficulty latching.

Anyone who is concerned about latching or other nursing issues can talk with a certified lactation consultant or other medical professional for further advice. The postpartum period can be a challenging time, especially for new parents.

Various support groups are available to provide advice on latching and other common nursing concerns.