How to Solve Common Latch Problems With Breastfeeding

Mommy Soothing
Tanya Little / Getty Images

When a baby latches on to the breast correctly, they can more easily remove breast milk from your breasts. Efficient removal is important for both you and your baby. It allows your child to get enough milk to grow healthy and strong while also telling your body to build and maintain your milk supply.

On the other hand, when a baby isn't latching on well, it can lead to breastfeeding issues for mom and baby. Babies who don't get enough milk may gain weight slowly or even lose weight. Moms can develop painful breast conditions such as breast engorgement, plugged milk ducts, or mastitis.

The ineffective removal of breast milk can also cause a low breast milk supply.

Most babies can latch on and breastfeed well, even if they need a little assistance in the beginning. However, there are a few situations that can make latching more difficult.

Here are a few common reasons your little one may be having trouble latching on and what you can do about it.

If your newborn is not able to latch on and breastfeed, it's important to get help from your doctor or a lactation professional as soon as possible.

Your Baby Is Fussy

When a baby is too fussy or crying, they may not latch on to breastfeed. There are many reasons a baby is fussy. If your infant is hungry, overtired, or overstimulated, breastfeeding can be more difficult.

Try to breastfeed when your baby is awake, calm, and before they get too hungry. If your baby is crying, try to console them before feeding. Holding and swaddling your child or moving to a quiet area and dimming the lights can also help.

Gently squeeze a few drops of breast milk onto your breast right before you try to get your baby to latch. The smell and taste of the milk can encourage your baby to feed. You can also try to change positions or change sides.

Your Baby Is Too Sleepy

If all your newborn wants to do is sleep, they may not show any interest in latching on and breastfeeding. Sometimes, the medications given during childbirth can cause extra sleepiness. If that's the case, the sleepiness will wear off with the medications.

Many times, newborns are just tired. If your baby doesn't wake up to breastfeed, wake them up at least every two to three hours. Try to rouse them by talking softly, unwrapping them, and changing their diaper.

Sometimes, all it takes is holding your baby in a different breastfeeding position. If they are a little less warm and comfortable, they'll be more likely to stay awake for feedings.

You Have Large Nipples

If you have large nipples, it can be harder for your newborn to latch on. Even average-sized nipples can be too big for a premature infant. For your child to latch on well, they need to be able to take the entire nipple, plus a good amount of the areola, into their mouth.

If your nipple is filling up your child's mouth as they try to latch on, they won't be able to grasp any of the surrounding areolae along with it. Therefore, they won't be able to effectively remove breast milk.

A nipple shield may also be helpful. When it's placed over the nipple, the shape of the shield is smaller and easier for a baby to grasp in their mouth.

Large nipples are only an issue in the early days of breastfeeding. As your child grows, it will become easier for them to latch on directly to your breast.

You Have Large Breasts

It can be awkward and difficult to get your baby latched on properly when you have very big breasts. The size of your breast can prevent you from viewing your nipple and your baby's mouth. It's also harder to hold your breast and position them.

In this situation, the best way to get your baby latching on is to have someone help you in the beginning. Then, as you become comfortable and your baby learns to latch on and breastfeed, you will be able to do it on your own.

You Have Severe Breast Engorgement

Breast engorgement is common, especially in the first few days of breastfeeding. From days 3 to 5, your colostrum is turning into mature breast milk.

During the transitional stage, breast milk production increases. As your breasts are quickly filled, it can cause them to become swollen and hard.

If the skin on your breasts becomes tight and your nipples flatten out, your baby may have a hard time latching on. You can soften up the skin around your nipples and areola by pumping or hand expressing a little breast milk before you begin to breastfeed. This will make it easier for your baby to latch on.

Your Nipples Are Flat or Inverted

Some babies can latch on to flat or even inverted nipples. However, sometimes flat or inverted nipples make it more difficult for a baby to latch.

If your newborn can't latch on correctly because your nipples don't stick out of your breast, try pumping for a minute or two before you begin breastfeeding. The suction of a breast pump will sometimes draw out and lengthen the nipples enough for your child to latch on.

If that doesn't work, talk to your doctor or a lactation professional about trying a nipple shield.

Your Baby Was Born Premature

A preemie has a small mouth, making it harder to get a good latch. With less energy to suck and draw the milk out of the breast, preemies can tire out quickly before they get enough breast milk.

A nipple shield can make it easier for a premature baby's tiny mouth to latch on. Or, you may have to pump your breast milk for your preemie until they get a little bigger.

Your Baby Has a Tongue-Tie

In babies born with a tongue-tie (ankyloglossia), the piece of tissue that connects the tongue to the lower part of the mouth is, instead, attached closer to the tip of the tongue.

A baby with a tongue-tie cannot extend their tongue out of their mouth far enough to correctly latch on to the breast for feeding.

If your newborn is having latching problems and you suspect a tongue-tie, let your pediatrician know. They will need to refer your baby to a specialist who is trained to diagnose the condition.

Once your infant has been examined by a specialist, (such as an ear, nose, and throat doctor or ENT), treatment will be based on how severe the condition is.

Your Baby Was Born With a Cleft Lip

A cleft lip makes it harder for an infant to latch on and create a seal around the breast. If your baby also has a cleft palate, it can be tough for them to create the suction needed to pull milk from your breast.

It's not necessarily impossible to breastfeed if your infant has a cleft lip and/or palate. Your newborn's doctor, a lactation consultant, and the other specialists involved with your baby's care can provide guidance.

Learning the techniques for breastfeeding a baby with a cleft, and getting started as soon as possible, will give you the best chance of successfully breastfeeding.

Your Child Has Down Syndrome

Babies born with Down syndrome tend to have small mouths and poor muscle tone, which can make latching on for breastfeeding difficult.

Babies born with Down syndrome often have low muscle tone, tongue thrusts, and a weak ability to suck—all of which can affect the baby’s ability to breastfeed.

With time and support, many babies with Down syndrome are able to breastfeed successfully. Breastfeeding may even help infants with Down syndrome develop coordination and build up strength in their facial muscles.

If your baby has Down syndrome, it can help to talk to a lactation professional early on if you would like to breastfeed.

You can try breastfeeding as soon as it's safe to so, which might even be in the delivery room. To encourage your baby to latch on and feed, hold your baby to the breast often and give them lots of skin-to-skin time.

Your Newborn Was Born With Other Special Needs

A baby with a neurological issue may have difficulty forming a seal around the breast or sucking. Infants with heart problems may get tired easily or have trouble breathing and breastfeeding at the same time.

If your baby is born with a health issue, they will need more help with latching on, as well as more time to adjust to breastfeeding. You may have to pump breast milk and supplement your infant while you are both learning the ropes.

When to Call the Doctor for Latching Problems

If your baby is not latching on and breastfeeding well, they may not be getting enough breast milk. If this happens, it's important that you get in touch with your pediatrician, as newborns and infants can become dehydrated quickly.

Call your baby's doctor right away if:

  • Your baby does not wake up and latch on to your breast for most feedings. 
  • The soft spot on top of your baby's head is sinking into their skull.
  • Your baby's lips and mouth are dry.
  • Your baby is not having normal amounts of wet diapers. For the first 5 days after birth, wet and dirty diapers should match the day of life (one wet and one dirty on day 1, two on day 2, and so on). After day 5, expect at least six wet diapers and three dirty (although some babies will stool less frequently).

A Word From Verywell

Issues with latching on can interfere with breastfeeding, decrease breastfeeding confidence, and lead to early weaning.

With the right help, most latching problems can be corrected. Even babies born early or with physical and neurological issues can still learn to latch on and breastfeed.

Breastfeeding is not always straightforward or easy, especially in the beginning. It's often a learning process for parents and babies.

While it takes a little work, as long as you have patience, support, and guidance from lactation consultants and other healthcare providers, it's possible to turn latching problems into breastfeeding success.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. World Health Organization. Infant and young child feeding: Model Chapter for textbooks for medical students and allied health professionals.

  2. Mangesi L, Dowswell T. Treatments for breast engorgement during lactation. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010;(9):CD006946. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD006946.pub2

  3. Hill R. Implications of Ankyloglossia on Breastfeeding. MCN Am J Matern Child Nurs. 2019;44(2):73-79. doi:10.1097/NMC.0000000000000501

  4. Burca ND, Gephart SM, Miller C, Cote C. Promoting Breast Milk Nutrition in Infants With Cleft Lip and/or Palate. Adv Neonatal Care. 2016;16(5):337-344. doi: 10.1097/ANC.0000000000000305

  5. Oliveira AC, Pordeus IA, Torres CS, Martins MT, Paiva SM. Feeding and nonnutritive sucking habits and prevalence of open bite and crossbite in children/adolescents with Down syndrome. Angle Orthod. 2010;80(4):748-53. doi: 10.2319/072709-421.1

  6. Van den engel-hoek L, De groot IJ, De swart BJ, Erasmus CE. Feeding and Swallowing Disorders in Pediatric Neuromuscular Diseases: An Overview. J Neuromuscul Dis. 2015;2(4):357-369. doi: 10.3233/JND-150122

Additional Reading
  • Ballard JL, Auer CE, Khoury JC. Ankyloglossia: assessment, incidence, and effect of frenuloplasty on the breastfeeding dyad. Pediatrics. 2002 Nov 1;110(5):e63.
  • Eidelman, A. I., Schanler, R. J., Johnston, M., Landers, S., Noble, L., Szucs, K., & Viehmann, L. (2012). Policy Statement. Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk. Section on Breastfeeding. Pediatrics, 129(3), e827-e841.
  • Lawrence, Ruth A., MD, Lawrence, Robert M., MD. Breastfeeding A Guide For The Medical Profession Eighth Edition. Elsevier Health Sciences. 2015.
  • Reilly S, Reid J, Skeat J. ABM Clinical Protocol# 17: Guidelines for breastfeeding infants with cleft lip, cleft palate, or cleft lip and palate. Breastfeeding Medicine. 2007 Dec 1;2(4):243-50.
  • Riordan, J., and Wambach, K. Breastfeeding and Human Lactation Fourth Edition. Jones and Bartlett Learning. 2014.