Help! Why is my newborn not latching?

Help! Why is my newborn not latching?

When your newborn is placed in your arms, one of their most fundamental things you expect to be able to do is FEED them. So when your newborn’s not latching, it’s easy to feel panicked, rejected, discouraged, or all of the above!

The good news is that newborns are VERY adaptable. Absolutely everything is new to them, and they can forget old habits and learn new ones pretty quickly. So if they’re not latching, it usually doesn’t take long to teach them.

The bad news is that their forgetfulness means that latching can feel like a “two steps forward, one step back” process. You’ll have a couple great feeds in a row, and then the next one it feels like they’ve forgotten everything that they’ve learned. Don’t get discouraged – with a little practice, this phase will soon be a distant memory! 

I’ve worked with thousands of newborns who weren’t latching, and often a few simple tips were all their parents needed to get them latched and feeding beautifully. Here are some common scenarios where a newborn doesn’t latch, and what to do about them:

Newborn not latching scenario #1: They’re sleepy – they just won’t wake up or open their mouth enough to eat.

The first 24 hours of a baby’s life are usually pretty snoozy ones. They’re tired from birth, they may still have amniotic fluid in their tummy making them feel full, and they’re not really feeling a strong need to eat yet. Keep waking them up to offer them regularly, but don’t panic that this means your baby won’t ever latch. Ask for someone to show you how to hand express your colostrum into a spoon so you can feed it to them. What you express doesn’t look like much, but their tummy capacity on that first day is very tiny! They’ll benefit from every drop you can give them, and often the taste of milk gets them interested in latching. Do lots of skin-to-skin between feeds, rest, and prepare for the second night after birth when they’ll be feeding non-stop.

If your baby is older than 24 hours and still not waking up to eat, we want to get a little more pushy. Getting them undressed, changing their diaper, using a cool wipe on their body, and tickling them can all help wake them up. If you haven’t been able to wake your baby up for 2 feedings in a row, contact your baby’s doctor to check in.

Newborn not latching scenario #2: They’ll latch and suck a few times, then fall off…then latch, then fall off…over and over until they get frustrated.

Newborns, despite not having a whole lot of skills, are pretty smart when it comes to feeding! If they realize they don’t have the nipple far enough back in their mouths to get a good suck going, they’ll usually let go and start again. 

While it looks like they’re latching and sucking in this case, the latch is probably so shallow that when the baby does a few “test sucks”, they realize it’s wrong and start again. You may notice that you barely even feel those sucks – that’s because of the shallow latch. And while it may look like your baby is feeding when they do this, they aren’t actually getting much milk out. That’s why they start getting frustrated! Help your baby get on more deeply – see the deep latch tips below.

Newborn not latching scenario #3: They’ll suck on a bottle, paci, or finger, but when you try to latch them they just scream and shake their head back and forth frantically.

If you stick your (clean) finger into your baby’s mouth, you’ll notice they almost always suck willingly. Why is that? They have a “trigger spot” on the roof of their mouth – when it’s touched, it triggers them to suck. It’s easy to find and put pressure on that spot with your finger. That’s because your finger is longer and firmer than your nipple – same goes for bottle and pacifier nipples.

If your baby is willing to suck on your finger, but is just screaming and shaking their head when you try to latch them, they may just need a little more help finding the nipple. See the tips below for getting a deep latch.

Newborn not latching scenario #4: They’ve gotten a few bottles, and now they don’t want to latch anymore.

Bottles feel very different to newborns than your nipple does – see above about bottles hitting the “trigger spot” in the roof of their mouth. Plus the milk flows much faster, too – who doesn’t like an easy meal? When the baby goes to latch on to you again, the feel and flow is more difficult. So they fuss until they get the bottle again, which reinforces their bottle skills even more.

Remember, babies can learn and forget very quickly – so if they’ve “learned” the bottle most recently they may have “forgotten” your nipple. It can help to make your own anatomy feel more like the bottle for a few feeds, then ease them back into latching without the extra tools. This may mean:

  • adding a nipple shield (with careful monitoring – see below)
  • an extra flow of milk via a syringe or at-breast supplementer (an IBCLC can help with this)
  • or just using some of the tips below to make sure they’re getting as deep a latch as possible.

The key is to keep trying! Many babies well past the newborn stage have re-learned how to latch. So if your baby is a few days or a few weeks old, they’re easily still in the zone for learning.

Deep latch tips:

  • Try different positions (football, laid back, cross cradle, side lying) to see if those help get your nipple into your baby’s mouth at a better angle.
  • Make a “nipple sandwich” – position your fingers just outside of your areola (the dark part around your nipple) and compress, to make it easier for your baby to grab on
  • If you’re engorged, do reverse pressure softening (pressing gently around the base of the nipple to soften it up) for a few minutes before trying to latch
  • If you’re in the hospital, ask for lots of hands-on help from your nurses and/or lactation consultants
  • If you have short or flat nipples, someone may suggest using a nipple shield – these can be very useful, but should be used with close monitoring of your baby’s weight. Some babies have difficulty getting milk out with the shield – you want to make sure your baby is getting enough! You should also ask for a follow up appointment with a lactation consultant to help you learn how to feed without the shield, once your baby has gotten the hang of feeding with it.

Still struggling with your newborn not latching?

It’s time for a visit with a lactation consultant! I’ve found that often a single visit is all a family needs to leave latching successfully. Try to find an IBCLC local to you for hands-on help; if you haven’t found anyone, contact me and we’ll discuss whether a virtual visit might help. If not, I’ll help you look for your closest resources. 

In the meantime, pat yourself on the back – you are doing a great job, and you will figure this out!