Effective Feeding: The Difference Between a Suck and a Swallow

If your baby is latched onto your breast, that means he's eating, right? Well, sometimes.

As a new mom, it's not unusual for you to assume that once your baby has latched on properly, he's happily filling himself up. You'll feed him for what seems like an hour, but then 20 minutes later he'll be hungry again.

What's happening is that your baby is just "being at" your breast rather than feeding from it. Sure, he's sucking, but that motion is merely comforting and mechanical; he isn't actually swallowing any milk. Many times, he'll nurse himself right to sleep without filling up at all.

To make sure your baby is eating when he's nursing, it's important to learn the difference between a suck and a swallow. This may be tough in the first few days because your baby swallows colostrum—the milk you produce after giving birth—less frequently than mature milk. However, you should keep watching for signs of swallowing. After your milk comes in, his swallowing might become more obvious as your milk supply gets bigger and flows faster, making it easier for him to eat.

Watch for these signs of swallowing

  • When the underside of your baby's chin drops down long, slow and deep like a bullfrog's throat, that's a swallow. If the movement is short, quick and shallow, it's a suck.
  • Some babies make small noises when they swallow, like a little clicking or a light sigh.

After you learn to recognize what your baby's swallowing looks like, it's a good idea to watch his swallowing pattern. Effective feeding is defined as swallowing after 1, 2 or 3 sucks and doing so in long bursts, such as 10 or more. (Learn more: How to Identify Effective Feeding, and How to Ensure Effective Feeding)

Tips for success

  • Take the time to learn the difference between your baby's suck and swallow.
  • Don't assume that just because your baby is at your breast, he's eating. It's the same thing as older children who sit at the dinner table but don't eat their food.
  • Watch the underside of your baby's chin for long, slow, deep drops, which mean he's swallowing.

Source: Heather Kelly is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) who also sits on the Bravado Breastfeeding Information Council Heather has been practicing in New York City since 2001.

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Heather Kelly
Heather is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant.
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