Unlocking the Latch: Here's what to do when your baby won't gape.

You asked. So we answered. 
In this blog series, I answer reader questions to help the newborn period make more sense.



Reader Question
My 7-week-old preemie baby has had a shallow latch for over the past month, due to a nipple shield. I've just gotten her to start latching without the nipple shield, but she can’t seem to open her mouth widely prior to latching no matter how much chin-planting I do. Wondering if others are having similar experiences


So first off, congratulations on getting your baby off a nipple shield! That’s no small feat, especially when you are dealing with a premie ...so way to go!!!

Now to your question about her ability to open widely, or gape, before latching.

When you have a baby that isn’t opening very widely (which is really common) then there are 3 general things you want to consider for the underlying reason about WHY they aren’t able to gape.

Your problem can be one of these, or a combination of them, but once you understand why you can start to address how to make it better.

# 1 - How you are giving the reflexive cue. 

In your question, you mentioned that you are giving her the cue so you can likely rule this one out for your baby, but I want to make sure you are giving her brain enough TIME to respond to the cue…because the first step of this process is to give the cue.

There is a second part of this step, though, and I want to make sure you are doing that too before you rule out that it isn’t about the cue itself.

As you mentioned in your post, the reflexive cue that tells a baby’s brain to open wide is found on the chin, and for lots of babies, you have to have solid contact with that chin for the brain to get the memo that it needs to move the mouth.

The next part of this cue is making sure the muscles that open the mouth have the time to get the memo and do their job before you give the baby’s brain a cue to do something else instead.

Often what happens is that the cue is given to the brain to open wide, but before that happens, accidentally gives the brain the cue to start to suck. As soon as anything touches your baby’s lips or tongue, the brain is going to move to the next ask…because that keeps your baby’s body safe.

Just like when we eat a sandwich, we open wide to get the food inside, but once that food is in there, we close down and start to chew. If we open our mouths during the chewing phase, food would fall out, but we might also choke because we need our mouths closed to use our tongues safely.

Your baby does too.

So, if your baby is accidentally getting the SUCK cue before the muscles have a chance to open as wide as they can, then your never going to get a wide-open mouth…that ship sailed already. I have a hack for this to get the nipple out of the way, and it’s inside my Latching Survival Guide Virtual Course.

If your baby hasn’t been gaping widely for a while (or ever) then sometimes getting this reflex to work can take a bit of time, and it’s may be helpful to think about this as building the pathway instead of getting it RIGHT AWAY the first time…the more we set our baby up, the more we ask, the more the muscle moves, the more the muscle CAN move.


Identifying this problem.

If you set your baby up in position with their ABC’s and get their chin planted, and they start to suck instead of gape…then the problem is that suck cue is trumping the gape cue. If you put your baby in position and they do *nothing* at all…like no response at all….it isn’t about the position, its something else, and we can troubleshoot that below.


Solving This Problem

Work on positioning so that you are making sure your baby gets the cue to gape AND has the time for it to happen before they get the cue to suck. If you don’t know how to get your baby into a position to use their reflexes, click here to get my free Gentle Latching™ E-Book, right here. 

#2 - Physical challenges preventing a wide open mouth.   

There are two main reasons why your baby can’t gape: Your baby isn't feedable right now, which is the easiest problem to solve OR there are structural barriers to opening widely. 

Gaping is a reflexive cue that engages when your baby is feedable, and if they aren’t then you aren’t going to get the response. That doesn’t mean they can’t…it just means that right now isn’t a good time to practice.  Explore again when your baby is ‘feedable’ but not frantic. That may be after you have fed on one side or started with a bottle and calmed down a bit. When you learn something new it can feel really exciting to go try.it.right.now with your baby, but you AND your baby have to be in a receptive state to learn.

Structural barriers to gaping doesn't mean that your baby has a tongue tie.   The muscles that a baby uses to open their mouth are not the exact same muscles that are used to move the tongue (though there is some overlap). A baby with a tie should be able to gape before feeding…but they may just slide shallow as soon as they latch. 

What causes structural barriers to being able to gape widely before latching?


Tension is a big one here. If your baby has been feeding with a narrow jaw because that’s all they have known, then they may have been using their jaw muscles to help hold on to your breast, and those muscles are just tense or locked in place.

The next time you feed, watch your baby’s face. Look for patches of white on their face where everything else around it is pink. That’s a sign of a lack of blood flow, and that means that the area is likely compressed through tension. The most common places for tension is in between the eyebrows, the top of the lip, and the cheeks. Feeding isn’t supposed to be HARD for a baby, so if they are tense, that’s a clue that feeding is harder for them than it’s biologically designed to be.

Identifying this problem.

One of the biggest tells that tension is a big factor is how long your baby can hold their mouth open wide during the latching process. Do they open for 2 seconds or more, or do they open it some and then close it quickly like an alligator snapping turtle (and ouch!)? If it is the latter, take a look a their head and neck too….are their shoulders high and tight and they can’t move their neck a whole lot? If so, tension is likely impacting your baby’s ability to move AND feed, because it’s preventing them from gaping widely.


Solving this problem.

A really good bodyworker can help you with mobility and tension in your baby…Lots of people who can help, but my favorites are good infant massage therapists, chiropractors, or osteopaths. Here is a course with gentle movement-based exercises you can do at home to help relax your baby’s nervous system and help them move more easily.

# 3 - An immature pathway between the brain and the muscle.

The third reason that your baby isn’t able to open widely before latching is just because the connection between those muscles and the brain is connected as well as we want it to be right now.

All babies are born with the same reflexes, so we know that this pathway is there, it’s just that your baby hasn’t been using it, so the brain just focuses on other things instead, and so that unused pathway is just…overgrown a bit.

That doesn’t mean those weeds can’t be cleared off, so it becomes available and accessible to your baby. It absolutely can, even IF your baby is 6+ months old, though it’s always easier when they are younger because they have less of an opinion about things. Reflexes hang out in the brain for a long, long time…and the more you engage them, the quicker the brain can respond, and for babies under 4 months, it’s a pretty quick job…usually less than a week and often in just a few days. 

Identifying this problem.

This is a problem that you can identify by ruling out positioning and by triggering the gaping cue with your finger when your baby is feedable but not frantic. If they don’t respond off your breasts at all, then they probably aren’t going to respond at your breast right away either, especially when you’re both hungry.


Solving This Problem

The good news about this problem is that it’s a relatively quick fix unless there are ALSO underlying tension issues getting in the way. To fix it, you simply play the reflexive cue first off the breast until it’s firing, and then at your breast, once you have cleared the path away a bit, you can get more details about how and why to do this in the Latching Survival Guide listed above, and here is a link to one of my favorite exercises for building this reflex when it just won't fire. 


So, just to recap, the symptom is that your baby isn’t opening wide…and your job is to get to the bottom of WHY that is. There can be reasons for different babies, but once you understand what’s going on, you can understand how to help your baby get a better latch that works better and feels better for both of you.

If you have a question about feeding that you would like to have answered, send your question(s) to [email protected].


If you feel stuck or need some more support with making latching work for your anatomy, our  Latching Survival Guide Virtual Course,  to help walk you through the latching process step by step, to help make sure you and your baby get the best latch you can.  



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