What is baby-led breastfeeding?

Baby-led breastfeeding is an approach to infant feeding that takes advantage of a baby’s innate ability to locate and latch on to their mother’s breast when placed skin-to-skin. It is a technique that is used most often with newborns and with babies who are having difficulty breastfeeding. 

The baby-led approach to breastfeeding was popularized by Dr. Christina Smillie, pediatrician and lactation consultant. It is based on the theory that human babies, like other newborn mammals, will instinctively seek and latch on to their mother’s breast if given the chance—a theory known as biological nurturing

Early steps (e.g., placing your baby against your chest) “set the stage” and help your baby “organize his behavior.” A key component of baby-led breastfeeding is skin-to-skin care (sometimes called “kangaroo care”). Holding your baby skin-to-skin enables him to act instinctively in the environment of your body. While both baby-led breastfeeding and skin-to-skin care can make it easier for a baby to latch on and breastfeed, skin-to-skin care can be performed by a variety of individuals (mom, dad, or others) for reasons other than breastfeeding (e.g., calming, warming). 

Some moms prefer to take the lead and place their babies directly on their breast and forgo the early steps. For some babies this won’t matter. But for others, who are still learning to breastfeed, the following steps can make all the difference:

  • Go slow. About 15 minutes prior to breastfeeding, place your diaper-clad baby skin-to-skin between your breasts. Much like the breast crawl, baby-led breastfeeding uses skin-to-skin contact to create a relaxed environment that gives your baby a chance to cuddle, connect, latch on, and breastfeed. 
  • Follow your baby’s lead. Stretching and moving toward the breast is the first sign that your baby is becoming interested in eating. Other signs of hunger to watch for include: squirming; bobbing his head; looking up; making eye contact; licking his lips; and/or twisting to one side. Your baby’s movements can be sudden. Support his neck and shoulders with one hand and his hips with the other, but don’t restrict his movement or force him to latch onto the breast. Expressing a few drops of breast milk may appeal to his sense of smell. 
  • Support your baby. Contact with your nipple and/or breast will trigger the “rooting reflex” (mouth open, head bobbing). Your baby will approach the breast chin-first, open his mouth, and fill his mouth with breast (the best sign of a good latch). 
  • Get help, if needed. If you or your baby is having trouble breastfeeding, contact a board certified lactation consultant for help. 

For more about the benefits of skin-to-skin care, see here and here. For more tips on how to get started breastfeeding, read this

Last updated July 11, 2017

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