What is breast crawl?

It may seem hard to believe, but many newborns, when placed on their mother’s chest after birth, make their way to the breast and latch on without any assistance whatsoever. This instinct-driven effort is referred to as the “breast crawl.” 

How does it work? 

As soon as your baby is born, place him skin-to-skin on your chest. Make sure that you are semi-reclined or laid back (a “biological nurturing” position). Allow your body to support your baby and use your hands and arms to ensure that your baby doesn’t roll off your chest. Be sure to touch your baby and stroke him gently, but know that with the breast crawl, your baby moves toward the breast on his own—powered by a newborn stepping instinct. 

Women who experience a cesarean birth (c-section) can still use a modified version of the breast crawl. Simply place your baby head first at the top of your chest in an over-the-shoulder position. Ask your partner or nurse to support your baby as he makes his way down your chest to your breast. 

In 1998, neonatologist Marshall Klaus identified a five-part sequence of events in the breast crawl: 

  • Salivating and mouthing hands 
  • Moving in the direction of the breast, through leg and arm movements 
  • Bouncing head up and down and side to side 
  • Opening mouth at nipple 
  • Latching on and suckling

A dozen years later, maternal-child researcher Kerstin Hedberg Nyqvist, RN, PhD, wrote more broadly about the breast crawl as an element of skin-to-skin care (also called “kangaroo care”) in the period immediately following childbirth. She distinguished between pre-feeding behaviors and feeding behaviors, noting that newborns exhibit: 

  • the birth cry 
  • relaxation 
  • awakening 
  • crawling breast preparation (fist kneading and head bouncing) 
  • latch and suckling

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends “direct skin-to-skin contact immediately after delivery until the first feeding is accomplished.” It is also to be “encouraged throughout the postpartum period.” Importantly, the newborn reflexes that support the breast crawl persist for at least the first 30 days of the child’s life and are triggered by a prone position (face down) on the chest of the semi-reclined mother. (Keep this tool in mind for feedings throughout the first month!

Want to see a baby breast crawl? UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) have created this amazing video to demonstrate how the breast crawl works and how a baby is able to initiate his first breastfeed.

Last updated November 13, 2018

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