Thursday's Tip: What are a newborn baby's hands trying to tell you?

Many breastfeeding parents of newborns find themselves battling little hands that seemed determined to go in the mouth just as they try to get baby to latch. Why is baby doing this?

It is not to drive you crazy although it might feel that way at the time.

Your baby has been bringing his hands to his mouth since he was in utero. Ultrasounds show the hand to mouth movements associated with baby swallowing amniotic fluid. So baby has been practicing this pattern for several months.

If baby’s face is not touching your breast as you initiate a breastfeeding she will try to use her hands to locate the nipple and bring it closer to her mouth. Babies have poor eyesight at birth and they use all five senses, including touch, to find your breast and get the nipple close to their mouths.

How to you deal with those waving grabbing hands?

Try a laid-back breastfeeding position and allow baby’s hands touch your breast. Swaddling or tucking the hands under a blanket can make baby more frantic because his normal body position, with the hands and arms forward for breastfeeding, is being hampered.

Bring baby to the breast so his chin is touching below the nipple and your nipple pointing to the space between the mouth and nose. This will help him orient himself to where the breast is and trigger a wide open mouth which gives a good latch. Imagine yourself eating a double decker hamburger: you tip your head back a bit and lead the way with your chin as you come in for a bite. You open wide and bring your top jaw over the burger before you bite down. This is what baby needs to do at the breast.

So those waving, grabbing hands can be doing a number of things:

  • Locating the nipple
  • Shaping the breast
  • Pulling the breast to the mouth
  • Self-calming (sucking on hands and then latching to the breast in the same location)
  • Pushing away from the breast to look for the nipple

In addition other research has shown that the massage like hand movements of babies on the breast and nipple area cause a rise in oxytocin levels and the nipple areolar area to become erect and more prominent which facilitates latch.

There is an excellent interview with Catherine Watson Genna IBCLC in which she talks about how babies use their hands to locate the breast and latch on.

If you find yourself with sore nipples or you feel that you just can’t get everything coordinated to help baby latch please contact a La Leche League Canada Leader to get suggestions tailored to your individual situation. Nothing on the internet or in a book (even if it is from LLL) knows you and your baby. Talking things over with an experience breastfeeding supporter can be very helpful.

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To encourage, promote and provide breastfeeding, chest feeding and human milk feeding support and educational opportunities as an important contribution to the health of children, families and society