Breastfeeding Is Movement

Allyson Wessells, PT, IBCLC

Many movements are required to coordinate breastfeeding and we check them all! Is baby able to lie on tummy comfortably with head turned in both directions, look upward, stretch arms outward, open jaw widely, extend tongue, elevate tongue, keep lips sealed when sleeping to name a few? Challenge with any of these may limit movement needed for breastfeeding reflexes to effectively work, hindering weight gain, milk supply and development. But they can be quickly remedied when detected and addressed early and often.

Breastfeeding is Movement Tip #1: Humans come into the world from a curled-up position, ready and needing to unwind. Ability to lie comfortably on belly with head turned in either direction is a good sign that head movement is sufficient for breastfeeding movement on either side and in a way that is functional for baby and comfortable for a new mother. Have you noticed a head turning preference in your baby? Was breastfeeding more challenging on one side?

Movement Tip #2: Upward head movement as a baby latches allows room for full jaw opening needed to achieve a deep and comfortable attachment. Just as our heads stay tilted upward when we drink from a glass, a baby’s head should do the same throughout a feeding to prevent gulping, choking, pulling on and off and the pain that often happens with a shallow latch.

Movement Tip #3: Outward arm movement is important for getting tummy to tummy for a close and comfortable latch. Newborn arms are naturally curled up but ready to hug around a breast for nourishment. If arms seem to be getting in the way, baby is too far away and in need of a snug hug. Tummy time can help arms relax.

Movement Tip #4: A newborn baby’s jaw should move as widely as a yawn as they begin to latch. Anything less can be painful, diminish milk removal, milk supply and weight gain. But how does this movement happen? Through amazing reflexes that a baby has been practicing for months before birth! They just need some touch on their chin. A nose to nipple aim usually puts the chin in the lead to touch breast which moves the jaw open for a deep latch to then start the suck and swallow reflexes that keep the movement going.

Movement Tip #5: A baby’s tongue should easily move outward and upward throughout a feeding. Tongue weakness and/or excessive attachment underneath (tongue tie) can sometimes limit the wide jaw movement needed for a comfortable latch, milk removal, milk supply and weight gain. A weak tongue can be strengthened with optimal positioning as well as playful exercises and lots of tummy time providing opportunity to move, explore and practice the motions needed for breastfeeding. A tongue tie may need further assessment by a professional skilled to diagnose and release it to move better. To ensure overall breastfeeding positioning and movement are optimized we recommend Lactation Consultant care before and after seeking tongue tie assessment or procedure.

Movement Tip #6: A baby breathes through their nose when awake and asleep. Adults should as well. Lips sealed when sleeping is a good indication that jaw, mouth and tongue strength are all sufficient to coordinate the movement and sustained suction needed for comfortable feeding without excessive air intake that may impact digestion.

Breastfeeding is a combination of movements! As with any movement combination humans learn (think those required to ride a bike or play an instrument), breastfeeding requires repetition, frequency, and practice to become easy and automatic. Frequent breastfeeding in the early days and weeks nourishes a baby, and ALSO develops the strength and coordination that will sustain reliable milk production in the months ahead.

Frequent tummy time is a good way to practice breastfeeding movements. Tummy time gives a baby opportunity to freely move head side to side and upward (giving space to fully open jaw for a comfortable latch), move arms outward (to easily hug around breast while feeding), open jaw widely (to compress areola instead of pinch nipple), and move tongue outward and upward (to maintain effective suction as jaw moves to transfer milk). All of these movements combine for an ACTIVE latch with good positioning as a foundation.

Having challenges with any of these movements and/or tummy time? Seek support early and often, and schedule a visit with us! Just one limited movement in the combination can cause pain, incomplete milk transfer, low milk supply, and slow weight gain. Just one visit can improve the course of a breastfeeding journey, and lifelong health for both mom and baby💗

Head movement upward and to both sides, tongue movement upward and outward, arm movement outward, wide jaw movement, lips sealed easily when sleeping are among the many motions needed for effective breastfeeding!

About the author: Allyson Wessells is a physical therapist and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) with Nurture Columbus, in Columbus, Ohio.  As a PT and IBCLC, she focuses on optimizing nourishment and growth for lifelong health. Other services include presentations emphasizing the importance of breastfeeding and infant neurodevelopment as foundations for preventative healthcare.

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