Babies are born with incredible, innate instincts.
One of these instincts is the knowledge and ability to breastfeed.
In the first few days after birth, most mothers and babies need a bit of practice with breastfeeding. They might need to learn positions and attachment as they start their breastfeeding journey.
Despite this, the ability of newborns to find their mother’s breast and attach to the nipple is present from the time they’re born.
So how do babies know how to breastfeed?
They just do. It’s part of their natural reflexes to find milk after being born.
If you give them the time to do so after birth, your baby will show you exactly how.
How do babies know how to breastfeed?
In their first minutes of life, newborns can use their natural instincts to find the breast and to begin breastfeeding.
This phenomenon is called the breast crawl and is part of your baby’s reflex and instinct.
The breast crawl commonly involves these amazing steps:
- Baby is placed tummy down on his mother’s chest or abdomen immediately or very soon after being born, for skin-to-skin contact.
- Baby begins to salivate and move his hands towards his mouth.
- Baby uses stepping reflex to push with feet and legs, and uses arms to ‘crawl’ up the mother’s abdomen towards the breast (hence the name breast crawl). This promotes a surge of hormones, particularly oxytocin, that induces contractions in the mother’s uterus, which push out the placenta and reduce bleeding.
- Once closer to the breast, the baby starts to lift and bob his head up and down and from side to side. Oxytocin is also the breastfeeding hormone, and helps guide the baby’s mouth towards the breast and nipple for breastfeeding. The baby should be getting into the right position as well to suckle milk.
- Baby’s mouth will open and attempt to find his mother’s nipple.
- Baby will latch on and begin to breastfeed (this might take a few attempts). Just give it some time, and maybe ask for help in repositioning to make the first breastfeeding a success.
The breast crawl and breastfeeding is an instinct in all newborn mammals, including human babies.
The golden hour after birth
It’s recommended by health experts such as The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and members of the IBCLC that all healthy babies have immediate skin-to-skin contact with their mothers after birth. Babies should remain skin to skin with their mothers until they have their first breastfeed.
This important first cuddle is often referred to as ‘the golden hour’ and is a wonderful moment for the mother.
There are many important benefits of an undisturbed first hour after birth, and getting breastfeeding off to a good start is just one of them.
This hour is the start of you, the mother, and your baby getting to know each other.
The contact increases oxytocin (the love hormone) levels for mothers. This oxytocin surge directly influences your recovery, your breastfeeding journey, bonding, and even your milk supply.
Just as this first contact is your part of your baby’s instinct and reflexes, the same applies to you. This is the life you’ve carried with you, and you as the mother will naturally react in kind, whether you had any anticipation about this in the first place or not.
You can read more about oxytocin in Oxytocin – 15 Fascinating Facts About The Love Hormone.
It’s a good idea for routine procedures such as suctioning, weighing and measuring, administering the vitamin K shot, cleaning, dressing and swaddling to wait until after this important hour has passed.
Newborn assessments like APGAR scoring can be carried out while the baby is skin to skin on the mother’s tummy or even at the breast and suckling milk.
Unless urgent medical assistance is required, mothers and their newborn babies should be left undisturbed together for the first hour after birth.
Why is the golden hour important?
The first hour after birth, or ‘the golden hour’ is a time when newborns uses their innate reflex and senses to help them have their very first breastfeed to get milk.
Any disruption between birth and the first breastfeed can alter the natural sequence of events which your baby was born to follow. Needless to say, disrupting very basic instincts like this can lead to unforeseen difficulties.
All your baby’s five senses have an important role to play in the first breastfeed:
- Touch. The skin to skin contact between you and your baby immediately after birth helps to regulate your baby’s body temperature and heart rate. This will also help exercise your baby’s reflexes and instinct.
- Smell. As well as secreting colostrum when your baby is born, your breasts also secrete a smell that attracts your newborn baby. When your baby uses the breast crawl to locate your breast for the first time, he also leaves a scent trail of amniotic fluid on your tummy, making it easier for him to locate your breast the next time he’s ready to feed.
- Sight. The reason your nipple and areola grew larger and darker during pregnancy was to help your baby locate a food source using his sight. Babies respond to images with contrasting colours – much like a darker nipple against the lighter color of the breast. With this, they can get into a better position crawling up from your tummy to your breast in order to get milk.
- Sound. Your baby has already become accustomed to familiar sounds in the womb, and in particular, to the sound of your voice. Many parents notice their baby shows signs of recognising their voices as soon as he is born. Talking softly to your baby can help the process of bonding.
- Taste. Just as your baby has become accustomed to familiar sounds in the uterus, he has also become accustomed to familiar tastes. The taste of your breast milk will be similar to tastes your baby has already been exposed to in the uterus.
Bathing your baby too early after birth is something that can be detrimental to this process of using their senses.
Bathing can cause a change in your baby’s body temperature, blood sugar levels, comfort and security level. It also washes away important smells, fluid and tastes your baby needs to guide him in using his natural instincts and reflexes.
The World Health Organisation recommends waiting at least 6 hours, and ideally 24 hours, before bathing babies for the first time to avoid such difficulties.
Wait to Bathe Hospital Policy – Should You Delay Baby’s First Bath? discusses the reasons why it’s a good idea to wait to bath your baby, and might be the best option for you.
Golden hour after c-section
Provided your baby doesn’t require immediate medical attention, you can still have a ‘golden hour’ after a c-section.
Whether you’re having an elective or planned c-section, discuss your wishes with your obstetrician, so it’s quite clear what you want to happen on the day.
Make sure your support staff understands your plan to experience your baby’s first breastfeeding. Nothing else can compare to that magical experience between you and your child’s first contact, from the delivery room and into your arms.
If you have an emergency c-section, it’s very likely you will be able to hold your baby as soon as he’s born. This shouldn’t be a thing that keeps you and your newborn away.
Ask for immediate assistance from your midwife or doctor to get into the proper position based on your c-section.
It’s a good idea to make sure your partner or birth support people are aware of your wishes, so they can advocate for you on your behalf if they need to.
Be sure to read Gentle C-Section | 11 Ways To Have One.
What if my baby needs urgent medical attention?
Sometimes babies need immediate medical attention at birth, in which case it might be necessary are they are separated from their mothers for a while.
The good news is, the golden hour is something that can be recreated as soon as mother and baby are reunited.
The instincts and reflexes that help babies know how to breastfeed from birth are present for at least 30 days.
To encourage your baby to use these reflexes, you can do the following:
- Lie in a semi-reclined position in a dimly lit room
- Place your baby tummy down, skin to skin on your chest
- Give your baby time to use his instincts to crawl up your tummy, find your nipple and breast and suckle milk.
This encourages your baby to use the stepping reflex and sucking reflex he was born with. Let him use his reflexes, crawl up your tummy, find your breast and finally your nipple for milk. Help him by getting into the proper position for this. Doctors and midwives will be more than happy to assist you.
Let the baby crawl up your tummy. Allow their instinct teach them how to get in position and find your breast, latch their head and mouth to your nipple, and begin the magical moment of first breastfeeding.
This is something that can never be replaced for any mother, as it signifies the bond of mother and child.
Whether your first golden hour is immediately after your baby’s birth, or it is delayed for medical reasons, practicing the breast crawl any time in the first 30 days of your baby’s life will be beneficial to your breastfeeding journey.
How do I get my newborn to latch on for the first time?
The most important role you as a mother can play in helping your baby’s first breastfeeding is to allow your baby to show you what he already knows.
You can help your newborn latch on for the first time by doing the following thing:
- Make your care providers and support people aware of your wishes for immediate skin-to-skin contact when your baby is born. Let them know your anticipation as a new mom. Tell them to help position the baby properly on your tummy to promote the breast crawl instinct.
- Avoid routine procedures like weighing, measuring, cleaning, dressing, and swaddling until after the golden hour.
- Allow your baby time to go through the sequence of six events listed above in the breast crawl section.
- Avoid bathing your baby for at least 6 hours, but ideally 24 hours, after birth.
- Limit visitors until breastfeeding is well established. Interruptions can delay your milk supply.
Babies instinctively know how to breastfeed from birth, but it’s normal for it to take some time for mothers and babies to get breastfeeding working well.
Instinct may take time to kick in for you as well, as it varies from different women. You may still be dazed, still new to the feeling of being a mother.
Breastfeeding is natural, but it is also a learned skill for many mothers and babies. Like any other learned skill, it needs practice, perseverance and patience to get it and the position just right, from the tummy to the breast, to the nipple for life-giving milk.
If you are experiencing difficulties in getting your baby to latch onto the nipple or finding breastfeeding positions that work for you, or if have any concerns about breastfeeding, ask for help early.
You can speak to someone via your local breastfeeding helpline, or look up lactation consultants in your area.
While you’re still in hospital, a midwife or the hospital’s lactation consultant will be able to help you to breastfeed your baby. They can assist with breastfeeding positions, such as getting the baby’s head and mouth into the right position for breastfeeding, avoiding any early difficulties.
Once in the right position, the reflexes and instinct of both baby and mother should be able to handle the rest.
If you are at home, you can make an appointment for a private International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) to visit you.