Breastfeeding and good attachment: how-to-guide

Many people assume breastfeeding just comes ‘naturally’ but it’s a learning process for many mums and babies. Here are our tips on getting the hang of it...

Before having a baby, many mums worry about the birth but think breastfeeding will ‘just happen’. And for some mums, it does. But for many, breastfeeding is not like a maths puzzle that you get wrong or right. It’s more of a learnt skill that you and your baby figure out together.

Here are some ideas on how you and your baby can find your own groove when it comes to breastfeeding.

Getting started

Before you begin, it’s really important to make sure you and your baby are relaxed and comfy. If your baby is comfortably positioned and attached, this will help prevent sore nipples and make it possible for your baby to take your milk effectively (La Leche League, 2016).

There isn’t one correct way to breastfeed. You can try different ways to find what works for you and your baby. Here are some tips:

  • Prepare. Try to get everything you need, like a drink, snack, change of breast pads or muslin, to hand before you sit down.
  • Try to relax. Let your head and shoulders relax rather than tense up (Infant and Young Child Nutrition, 2009; NHS, 2016).
  • Are their head and body in a straight line? Check your baby doesn’t have to turn their head to feed. Look to the side yourself then try to swallow – it’s hard. Likewise, your baby will find it difficult to drink if their head and body aren’t in a straight line (WHO, 2009).
  • Keep them close. Keep your baby close to you and facing towards your chest.
  • You could try breastfeeding skin-to skin at first… as your baby will love the feeling and it can encourage them to feed (NICE, 2015).
  • Support them. Make sure you’re supporting their back, neck and shoulders, as this should allow them to tilt their head back and swallow milk freely (WHO, 2009).
  • Don’t hold onto the back of your baby’s head… as they need to be able to tilt it back slightly to get a bigger mouthful of breast and deep latch (NHS, 2016).
  • Always bring your baby to the breast… rather than breast to baby (La Leche League, 2016).

How to get your baby to latch on

The following steps apply to when you’re breastfeeding while you’re sitting up and using cradle or underarm hold positions. A slightly different approach is laid-back breastfeeding, where the baby is using more of their natural reflexes to feed.

Once you’re sitting comfortably, you can begin…

  1. Bring your baby’s nose in line with your nipple. This will allow them to tip their head back to get a large mouthful of breast (WHO, 2009).
  2. When your baby is ready to feed, they’ll open their mouth really wide with their tongue down. Gently touching their lips with your nipple can encourage them to do this (NICE, 2015).
  3. As soon as your baby’s jaw drops and their mouth opens really wide, like a big yawn, draw their whole body closer towards you while supporting their neck, and with their chin touching your breast first (WHO, 2009).
  4. Allow your baby to tip their head back to take a large mouthful of breast. Your nipple should enter the top of your baby’s mouth, not the middle, so that it goes past the hard palate towards the soft palate at the back (NHS, 2016).

Learning to breastfeed takes time (and a few misses) to work it all out. Why not take a look at our video about helping your baby to breastfeed.

Experiencing a little discomfort when your baby first latches on in the early days is not uncommon (NICE, 2015). If the nipples look sore or cracked, or if feeding is painful during the whole feed or afterwards, or you feel you baby is not managing to feed properly, do get support early.

You can call our infant feeding support line on 0300 330 0700 to talk to a breastfeeding counsellor. Alternatively, your midwife or health visitor can signpost you to your nearest breastfeeding support group.

What you should see when breastfeeding

  • Baby tucked in as close to you as possible.
  • Their chin against your breast, rather than tucked down, so their head is slightly tipped back.
  • Wide open mouth.
  • Their nose not pressed into your breast.
  • Deep jaw movements and rounded cheeks while sucking.
  • If some of the areola (the coloured part around your nipple) is showing, there should be more above the top lip than below the bottom lip.

(The Breastfeeding Network, 2014)

What you shouldn’t see when breastfeeding

  • Your baby’s cheeks sucked in.
  • Lips looking like they’re sucking on a straw.
  • Your nipple shouldn’t be squashed at the end of the feed when your baby comes off.

What you might hear

The sound of milk being swallowed. Some babies are noisier gulpers than others though.

In the first few days, when colostrum is still being produced, you might not hear much swallowing. That’s because colostrum is very low in volume. So look out for rhythmical sucks with long pauses that indicate swallowing.

If you’re not sure whether the baby is swallowing milk, you could ask your midwife or a breastfeeding supporter to observe a feed. They can show you when your baby is swallowing. See this video for more information.

What you might feel

  • Some women describe a feeling of being ‘firmly gripped’.
  • The let-down reflex – this is when the milk is flowing freely towards the nipple. Some women describe a tingling or ‘drawing’ feeling in their breasts. Others describe it as pins and needles or as a toe-curling sensation. Others don’t feel anything.
  • A fleeting pain at the start of the feed in the first few days or weeks. (Some women find mindfulness or relaxation techniques such as calm breathing or imagining a relaxing scene helpful.) If the pain persists through the feed, between feeds, it is worth getting some support to understand what might be causing it.

Problems: signs that more support might be needed

  • Intense or excruciating pain.
  • Pain that lasts through a feed or continues after the feed.
  • Sore, cracked or damaged nipples.
  • Flattened, creased or pinched nipples after a feed.

(NHS, 2018)

If you see, hear or feel anything that doesn’t seem right, you can gently insert your little finger into your baby’s mouth to break the suction and let them come off. Then start again.

It helps you both if you can stay calm and relaxed. So remember to breathe and ask a midwife or breastfeeding counsellor for help if you need to. 

How to tell if a baby is attaching well

  • Quick sucks at the start of a feed, then rhythmic sucking and swallowing, with occasional pauses.
  • You can hear and see them swallowing.
  • Their arms and hands are relaxed.
  • Their mouth is moist.
  • Regular wet and dirty nappies.
  • Your breasts feel softer after a feed.

(NICE, 2015; NHS, 2018)

It might take several attempts to get your baby attached correctly – and that means comfortably – for you both. You’re both learning something new together so try to relax and take your time.

Page last reviewed: August 2019

Further information

We support all parents, however they feed their baby. If you have questions, concerns or need support, you can speak to a breastfeeding counsellor by calling our helpline on 0300 330 0700, whether you are exclusively breastfeeding or using formula milk. Breastfeeding counsellors have had extensive training, will listen without judging or criticising and will offer relevant information and suggestions. 

UK Association of Milk Banking has information on its network of milk banks across the UK.

Best Beginnings: view video footage online from 'bump to breastfeeding'.

Healthtalkonline.org provides a comprehensive library of face-to-face interviews where parents share their experiences about breastfeeding, birth, parenting and many other issues.

La Leche League GB. (2016) Positioning and attachment. Available at: https://www.laleche.org.uk/positioning-attachment/ (accessed 15 August 2019)

NHS. (2016) Breastfeeding: positioning and attachment. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/Pages/breastfeeding-positioning-attachment.aspx [accessed 15th August 2019]

NHS. (2018) Breastfeeding: is my baby getting enough milk. Available at:https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/breastfeeding-is-baby-getting-enough-milk/ [accessed 15th August 2019]

NICE. (2015) Postnatal care up to 8 weeks after birth. Clinical guideline CG37. Available at: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg37/chapter/1-recommendations#infant-feeding [accessed 15th August 2019]

The Breastfeeding Network. (2014) Signs of effective attachment. Available at: https://www.breastfeedingnetwork.org.uk/sign-of-effective-attachment/ [accessed 15th August 2019]

WHO (World Health Organization). (2009) Infant and young child feeding: model chapter. Available at: https://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/infantfeeding/9789241597494/en/ [accessed 15th August 2019]

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