Effective Feeding: How to Identify Effective Feeding

This might sound like a familiar scene: Your baby is happily feeding away at your breast until she drifts into a peaceful sleep. Then 20 minutes later, she's awake and rooting for more milk. What's going on?

As a new mom, you're not alone in thinking if your baby is sucking at your breast, she's eating. However, sucking is only half of the equation; your baby also needs to swallow regularly in order to feed well.

The best thing you can do for yourself and your baby in the first few weeks is to learn the difference between a suck and a swallow. Then you must watch your baby to ensure that she's swallowing regularly during feedings.

Here's the difference between the two:

  • Suck: is when the underside of your baby's chin drops down in short, quick, shallow motions.
  • Swallow: is when her chin drops down long, slowly and deeply, like a bullfrog's throat.

How do I know if my baby is feeding effectively?

Once you understand the difference between sucking and swallowing, start noticing how often your baby swallows. Effective feeding is defined as swallowing every 1, 2 or 3 sucks and, more importantly, doing long bursts of that, such as 10 or more.

Here's an example of an effective suck/swallow pattern:

suck, suck, swallow (1)
suck, suck, suck, swallow (2)
suck, swallow (3)
suck, suck, suck, swallow (4)
suck, suck, swallow (5)
suck, swallow (6)
suck, swallow (7)
suck, suck, swallow (8)
suck, suck, suck, swallow (9)
suck, suck, swallow (10)

There will be a pause, then your baby will start the same pattern all over again.

A non-effective feeding goes something like this:

suck, suck, suck, suck, suck, suck, swallow
suck, suck, suck, suck, pause
suck, suck, suck, suck, suck, swallow
suck, suck (eyes close, sucking stops)

When that happens, your baby isn't feeding from your breast; instead, she's just "being" at your breast. This kind of pattern results in feedings that can go on and on, and she might nurse herself to sleep before she has filled up. This can lead to fussy behaviour, poor weight gain or several feedings that blend into one another throughout the day and night.

If your baby isn't swallowing regularly try not to get frustrated, because there are several things you can do. Switch nursing and breast compression are two easy ways to ensure your baby's intake, since both of them increase the flow of milk into your baby's mouth. And since swallowing is a reflex, if your baby gets a mouthful of milk, she'll swallow it.

While watching your baby's swallowing pattern may seem overwhelming at first, you'll probably only have to do it for the first couple of weeks when your baby is new and very sleepy. You'll soon hit your stride and then breastfeed without even thinking about it.

Tips for success

  • Learn the difference between a suck and a swallow.
  • Take the time in the first few weeks after your milk comes in to notice your baby's swallowing pattern.
  • Effective feeding is defined as swallowing every 1, 2 or 3 sucks, usually done in bursts of 10 or more.

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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