The Art of Suckling: The Proper Latch

We are born with the instinct to suckle. From the moment we are born, it is in our nature to seek our mother’s breast, but over time, as we mature and develop and nature takes her sweet course, we lose the ability to properly latch and suckle, as we are meant to find our sustenance by other means. Fortunately, for those of us who enjoy healthy adult nursing relationships, this instinct can be re-learned fairly easily.

Breast play, where the nipple is licked, sucked, and lavished with the lips and tongue as a form of sexual gratification is a fantastic part of a healthy relationship, but it does not aid in the stimulation required to produce breast milk. In an adult nursing relationship, we suckle, even if we dry nurse without the goal of lactation.

Surprisingly, the nipple plays a very small role in suckling. Suckling is oral massage of the areola. A common misconception is that breast milk is stored in the nipple. It is not. The nipple is merely a very pretty little receptacle that allows milk to pass from the breast into the mouth. When suckling, you should stay off the nipple, especially if you hope to encourage lactation.

Before the proper latch can occur, the breast must be positioned correctly. Many new to nursing women make the mistake of offering the breast by grasping it and pulling back, in an effort to further extend the nipple. To properly offer the breast to her partner, the woman should hold it in a cradled C-shape with one hand, which allows the nipple to remain flat against the areola. This sometimes alters the breast into something of a cone-shape, which makes the latch much easier. It is also easy to latch if the woman’s breast falls naturally into the mouth.

Here are step-by-step instructions to help you master the art of suckling:

  1. Before suckling, find a nursing position that is comfortable for both of you.
  2. The nursing partner’s mouth needs to be open very wide to ensure that he is taking in as much of the breast as he comfortably can. The lips will be slightly flanged, which means the upper lip will bow upward slightly, and the bottom lip will bow downward. This creates a seal around the areola.
  3. The breast must be positioned correctly in the mouth. Think of this placement as a “center-and-aim” position. Center the breast in the mouth and aim toward the back of the throat. The tip of the nipple will be very far into the mouth when using the motion.
  4. The tongue then rolls backward in a smooth motion, and catches the base of the nipple where it connects to the areola. This motion also catches the areola. The tongue is then used to pull the nipple onto the roof of the mouth where it is held  in place with firm, but gentle pressure. During suckling, the tongue actually squeezes the base of the nipple, pressing it upward, which coaxes milk to flow from the breast.
  5. Draw inward, using your lips to pull the breast into your mouth. Suckling requires control of the mouth rather than the muscles of the jaw, which often causes nursing fatigue and pain. This inward draw allows your tongue to naturally massage the base of the nipple while the lips stimulate the areola in an up and down motion. You can increase your suction simply by using more force when pulling your lips inward. Think of this as pulling your lips against your teeth; it’s the same motion.
  6. The seal created around the areola should be tight, but never painful. A woman can check this seal by paying close attention to her partner’s lips, or by sliding the tip of a finger against the corner of his mouth. If there is a noticeable gap that allows the fingertip to slide into the mouth with little resistance, then the seal is too loose, and her partner should increase suction. If there is no gap between the corner of the mouth and the breast, then he is latched properly, and can begin to suckle!
  7. It is really helpful if the woman is relaxed during the nursing experience, as this allows her breast to remain relaxed and receptive to suckling. Suckling can be described as a gentle pumping motion that pulls the breast forward. When properly suckled, the breast will flatten, which allows for fantastic stimulation while also aiding in the process of lactation.

Suckling occurs in two phases. Both should be smooth and rhythmic, as harsh and forceful sucking is both ineffective and sometimes harmful. Harsh sucking can cause milk ducts to collapse, impeding milk production and flow, and even cause injury to the breast. Be gentle. Nursing should never be painful!

The first phase is used to aid in the let-down reflex, and is a rapid succession of lip movement that pulls quickly against the breast. The second phase is used to receive milk that has begun to flow from the breast. The mouth slows its motion, pacing the inward draw in the classic “suck-swallow rhythm”.

If it seems that suckling requires a great deal of coordination, don’t worry! It’s much easier than you think; it often comes back as second nature once you know how it’s done. It might take a bit of practice to master the technique, but part of the fun of nursing is learning how–and learning together.

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