How to Know if Your Baby Has a Deep Latch
When you are breastfeeding or chestfeeding, trying to understand how well your baby is latching can feel like an exercise in futility. It doesn’t have to stay that way, however. When feeding actually makes sense, it can help you make it through the newborn period relatively unscathed. In this blog post, I’m going to help you understand what a deep latch is, why it matters, and a few things you can do to quickly assess your baby’s latch, so you can know whether or not you need to reach out for additional help.
What's In A Latch:
Latching seems to be one of the most confusing parts of infant feeding. It's a skill we can't really practice before we have a baby, and if you worked with 5 different lactation consultants in the hospital, there’s a good chance they all told you something different. The topic is simply much, much more confusing than it needs to be.
Let's start at the beginning. A latch is just a series of steps that your baby goes through all the way up until they swallow the milk that is inside of their mouth. The steps are as follows:
1: A baby opens their mouth
2: Your nipple enters the baby’s mouth
3: The baby closes their jaw and lips around the breast/chest tissue.
4: The baby starts to suck to help the milk flow
5: The baby swallows the flowing milk to feed.
This is latching. That's it. So, what makes it so hard to understand?
First, everyone tends to lump all the steps together, as one individual process. That makes it hard to tease where the actual problem is when something goes wrong. And because we lump it all together in one step, we only have a single phrase to cover all latching problems - a deep latch or a shallow latch. That makes us think that there it's like a light switch that is either turned on or turned off, instead of a process that has several different steps involved - and problems that pop up in any of the steps can impact how your baby latches.
For you, latching is super frustrating because you think you are doing the same thing over and over, and yet you are getting different results each time. Your brain isn't able to figure out how to solve the problem because it works *sometimes* and that convinces us to do the same thing over and over, even when most of the time it isn't working. Your brain just keeps on going, hoping the next time you'll win the lottery again. It makes the entire process feel exhausting, overwhelming, and confusing.
A deep latch is also a simple concept.
A deep/shallow latch simply refers to how much breast/chest tissue was in a baby’s mouth when they closed it down in step 3, right before they move to step 4 and begin to suck. If a baby has a lot of tissue in their mouth, then the nipple will be deep in the mouth. That's a deep latch. If the baby starts sucking with only a little bit of tissue in their mouth, then the nipple will end up positioned toward the front of the mouth. That's a shallow latch. That's it.
A deep latch is less about what you are doing, and more a test of how well each of the steps is working. It does matter how you position your baby (I'll cover that in a different blog), but how well your baby is able to move their head, neck and the muscles inside their mouth are ultimately the most important things that determine how deeply a baby is able to latch.
It's actually not your job to help your baby get a deep latch. It's your job to set them up so they can, and their body is designed to be able to take care of the latch. So, if your baby can't get or keep a deep latch, then it's a clue that something in the steps above isn't working as well as it should, and you simply need to figure out where and how to help.
Why does a deep latch matter?
A deep latch is easier for your baby. When your baby has a deep latch, that means they have a lot of contact with your breast/chest tissue and their tongue. This makes it easier for the tongue to stimulate your tissue, so you get a better hormonal response. It's a win-win for both of you. In addition, the tongue itself is made up of different muscles. When the baby can use more of their tongue, they can more equally share the workload of the feeding process. That can only happen with a deep latch.
Your anatomy is designed for a deep latch. Your breast/chest tissue is made up of lots of little storage tanks that have tubes that go to your nipple to carry the milk, called “milk ducts”. Those milk ducts start off deep in your breast/chest tissue, but they get very shallow close to the base of your nipple. If your baby has a shallow latch, those ducts can get pushed together, or compressed (much like pinching a hose). This compression can have a whole bunch of related complications for you and your baby. The more compressed your ducts are, the harder it is for milk to flow through them, so your baby has to work harder to get less milk. For you, some of the thicker parts of the milk may not be able to flow through compressed areas well and can then clog the duct. Milk may pool behind that area, which causes the duct to expand and become painful. This can lead to mastitis-like symptoms if the clogs are big enough, can be painful long after feeding is done, and can mimic more serious issues, leading to a misdiagnosis and unnecessary medication.
Shallow latches can cause nipple damage. The overwhelming majority of latching pain and damage comes from compression of your nipples during step 3 of the latching process. If your baby doesn’t have a lot of breast tissue in their mouth when they close their jaw, then they close their jaw right on your nipple. This acts like a vise clamping down and can cause incredible pain and damage. If it hurts you, that's a good indication that your latch is shallow, even if it stops hurting after the first few seconds.
How do I know what kind of latch my baby has?
The final reason that it's so hard to understand what kind of latch your baby has is that we tend to think of latching as only having two alternatives - either shallow or deep (bad or good). Try thinking about latching more like a zero-entry swimming pool. There is both a shallow end and a deep end, but there is a whole lot of space between those areas where you can swim around. Most babies have a latch that is somewhere in the middle of the pool.
It's hard to assess what kind of latch your baby has because your baby can have lots of different latches, even in one feed. When you think that latching is your fault, and you are either doing it right or wrong understanding what kind of a latch your baby has can feel like a scorecard about your ability to feed them. Instead of thinking about latching as good or bad, think about latching as information about how well all of those steps above are working in the moment of the feed. If your baby's best latches are generally on the shallow side of the pool, then that tells us it's a good idea to get help. If your baby's latches are generally on the deeper side....then you don't need to worry so much about the fact that they are occasionally shallow.
My dinner manners vary depending on how hungry I am too.
Getting a comprehensive latch takes time and skill, because you need to be able to identify and troubleshoot problems in all of the steps above. If you are having latching pain or concerns about feeding problems, the earlier you can reach out to an IBCLC, the quicker your problems can be resolved. However, you can easily do a quick screen to get a general idea of where your baby is hanging out in the pool, and know if you should get help. This is particularly helpful if you have been told that your "baby's latch looks fine' but something still seems off.
4 WAYS TO ASSESS YOUR BABY'S LATCH
Here are 4 quick ways to assess your baby's latch. If you want a more detailed assessment, you can also take my Latching Assessment Quiz and get your baby's latch score, to give you more information.
1. Your baby sucks, slurps or chews your nipple into their mouth.
If your baby sucks, slurps or chews your nipple into their mouth, instead of opening widely before latching, then your latch is going to be on the shallow side of the pool. They simply couldn’t have gotten enough tissue in their mouth to get all the way to the deep end before they started sucking. A baby doesn’t know (or care) about deep latching. They just care about getting the milk to flow, so as soon as the milk is flowing, the latch isn’t going to get any deeper. If it started out pretty shallow, it’s probably going to end up there unless you re-latch your baby.
2. You compressed and shoved your breast/chest into their mouth.
For the exact same reasons above, if your baby didn’t open widely before latching your latch is going to be closer to the shallow side. Compressing your breast and shoving it into their mouth might push them a little closer to the deeper end, for sure, but it’s definitely not going to get you all the way there. The better way to get a deep latch for most babies is to cue the gaping reflex that's on their chin and wait for a wide open mouth.
3. Your baby's jaw isn't open very wide while they're feeding.
A deep latch means that your baby keeps their mouth open wide for the whole feed. Here is an important word of advice on this one. Some babies are really good fakers - even professionals get tripped up here.
A baby that is opening widely looks like they are yawning when feeding because their actual jaw is open wide (see the picture on the left). A baby that is faking an open mouth will have a fish face where their lips are flared out widely, but their actual jaw is tight and closed. In the baby in the picture on the right, look at the tension in the corner of the mouth. If you are just looking at the angle of the lips, it’s going to fake you out. Don’t look at your baby’s lips, think about the jaw. If your baby has a narrow jaw, then they have a narrow latch.
4. Your baby Adjusts After Latching
There are fewer things more exasperating to new parents than helping your baby get a deep latch aaaand then they slide shallow, and you just don’t know what to do. When a baby slides shallow after getting a deep latch, that's a clue that there is a problem in step 4 or 5 in the process above. Something in the sucking/swallowing part of the latching process wasn’t working well, so your clever baby made it better. If your baby slides shallow after feeding, that's a big clue that something in the latching process isn’t working, even if they are gaining weight and it doesn’t hurt.
What does it mean if my baby has a shallow latch?
Now that you understand what a deep latch is, why it matters and you can get a general idea about whether or not your baby's latch is shallow or deep, let's talk about the thing you really care about - what it means for your baby.
It just means that the steps in the process may not be working as well as designed, and your baby might be having a harder time with breastfeeding or chestfeeding than it was designed. It's definitely not a scorecard about your skills as a parent. As I said above, how we bring our baby to our body sets the stage for a deep latch, but it isn't the whole story.
When breast/chestfeeding is hard for a baby, it can make feeding them the way you want to feed them feel much more difficult than it's designed to be. For example, it can make going back and forth between breast and bottle more difficult, and sometimes babies who have a hard time with breast/chestfeeding also wean earlier than the feeding parent intended. The good news is that an experienced IBCLC with a good eye can help you detect problems early, and make sure your feeding relationship stays on the track that you had intended.