Latching Redefined: Learn What Your Baby’s Latch is Really Telling You About Feeding.
If you have been told that “your latch looks good”, but your instincts have been telling you that something just isn’t quite right, then keep reading. This post was written just for you.
If your baby isn’t gaining weight well, it hurts every time you feed, or you have concerns about how feeding is going, then things aren’t good. If your baby’s latch has been defined as good, that must mean that the root cause of all of your challenges lies somewhere else, right? Perhaps you have wondered if the root cause lies with you.
If your baby has ‘bad’ latch, it’s also easy to internalize that message to mean that you are doing something wrong. If you could just remember the name and position of that other hold they briefly showed you in hospital (after 36 hours of labor), then maybe you could be good at latching your baby, in a way they deserve, and everything would be OK. Maybe your baby has a bad latch because you have worried that you aren’t good enough.
It’s not your fault. You aren’t doing it wrong and You Are Enough.
I'm going to let you in on a secret. There is no such thing as either a good OR a bad latch. If you are feeding your baby from your chest/breast, and that is how you want to feed your baby, then you are doing something very right, and are headed in the right direction.
It’s time we re-define how we talk about latching.
At the most basic level, latching is a process where a baby uses their mouth to attach to the chest or breast, to remove milk by using an intra-oral vacuum. Of course, there is a bit more to it than that, but for this blog, we are going limit the focus to the vaccum, because this is where most feeding problems arise.
There are two primary ways that this vacuum can be generated, and these represent either end of the spectrum. On one side of the spectrum, a baby generates the vacuum by using intra-oral suction, like how you would drink through a straw. This is a suck-driven vacuum. On the other side of the spectrum, a vacuum is created by lifting and dropping the tongue when the baby is latched onto the breast/chest. This is a lift-driven vacuum.
The most important thing to know is that while these two alternatives exist, they are not biologically equal.
A lift-driven latch is the biologically optimal way to feed. It’s more effective at milk transfer, more comfortable for your baby, and it does a much better job of providing feeding-induced satiety. In the long-term, a baby that is primarily feeding with a lift-driven latch also builds more functional oral motor skills because it uses a more comprehensive set of muscles than a suck-driven vacuum does.
The concept of a “good or bad” latch has tricked us into thinking that there are only two possibilities for latching. What actually happens is that your baby will use as much of their lift-driven vacuum as they can, and then use feeding compensations to make up the difference. For any given feed, your baby likely has some compensatory and some functional feeding behaviors, all at the same time. They don’t have EITHER a good latch OR a bad latch. They simply fall on the Latching Spectrum, somewhere between a suck-driven and a lift-driven latch.
The chart below provides a guide of some common feeding compensations that often occur when a baby is using suction instead of lift to remove milk. It also shows you what functional feeding behaviors look like so you can understand what biologically normal feeding behavior looks like. This is not designed to be a comprehensive list, because there are many other compensatory behaviors that babies create that aren’t listed here. It’s purpose is to just help you get a general idea of where your baby sits along the spectrum.
The more compensations you notice, the more your likely your baby’s latching needle is pointing towards the suction-driven side. The more functional behaviors that exist, the more the baby’s latching needle is likely pointing towards the lift-driven side.
While it is common to reduce latching quality down to just pain and weight gain when you are using a good/bad latch model, it causes confusion and frustration. The fewer characteristics you use as benchmarks, the less clear of understanding you have about where your baby actually falls, and often leads you astray from the root cause of your baby's feeding challenges. *My baby isn't happy, but latching doesn't hurt so everything must be fine..... * when things are clearly not fine. You may assume the problem lies somewhere other than the latch, when the reality is that your baby is using lots of other compensatory feeding behaviors that makes feeding very difficult for them.
This is why truly assessing where a baby falls on the spectrum often requires supported by someone who has training at seeing compensatory behaviors.
Addressing Feeding Compensations
Once you have identified if your baby has feeding compensations, the next natural step is to want to solve them. We all want to solve our baby's challenges, and babies feed and feel better when they are able to use a lift-driven vaccum to feed.
A word of caution: removing a feeding compensation on your own, such as flanging your your baby’s lip out after they have latched, doesn’t count as shifting the needle. Those compensations exist for a reason, and unless you have addressed why the lip wasn't flanged in the first place, you aren't changing the functionality of the latch. It might make the latch more comfortable for you in the movement, but it doesn't change the the underlying quality.
What you do before your baby latches does count. While addressing some of the compensatory behaviors may require some additional support, there are several fairly simple things you can do that can make a big difference as to where your baby’s latching needle points.
How you bring your baby to the chest or breast, and whether they are positioned at the chest with their head and neck in a gently extended position, has a big impact on how functionally they will be able to feed.
How hungry your baby is when they are brought to the chest or breast also matters, just like how hungry I am when I eat also determines how frantically I shovel food into my mouth too. Tension patterns in the body are reflected by the mouth, and this is why bodywork can also be important in your pathway to helping your baby feed and feel better.
Remember, if your baby can use a lift driven vacuum, they will. So, if your baby is consistently showing feeding compensations, and you can’t eliminate them with just positional or easy management changing, the problem doesn’t likely like with anything that you are doing something wrong. Your baby may need some oral function support from an IBCLC, who has specific additional training in oral function, to help identify and solve the barriers that are preventing your baby from being able to shift their needle.
So, the next time you feed your baby take a look to see if you can assess where your baby falls on the latching spectrum. This gives you insight into how functional your baby’s oral motor skills are, and provides you with a roadmap to help make things better.