As a parent, the new responsibilities you face can be overwhelming. Keeping such a small human fed, clothed, warm, healthy, and happy may feel like a lot!
Luckily, you’re not in this alone. Whether your partner, parents, or friends are pitching in, hopefully you have a support system to lean upon.
One person you probably never considered as a source of help is your baby! However, when it comes to that first breastfeeding session, your little one is actually capable of doing most of the work themselves. Seem crazy?
Allow us to introduce you to the magic of the breast crawl…
The breast crawl describes what occurs when a newborn baby is placed on their birth parent’s chest or belly immediately after birth and given time to find the parent’s nipple and begin to feed on their own.
This phenomenon was first described in 1987 in Sweden at the Karolinska Institute.
As long as your baby arrives healthy and vigorous, it’s safe for them to go directly to the birth parent’s chest and stay there for the first few hours after birth. Early assessments and procedures can be done with the baby on the parent, or they can be delayed.
Although it’s safe and there’s copious evidence on the benefits of immediate and prolonged skin-to-skin care after birth, it frequently doesn’t happen in
Know that you, as a parent, can advocate for the breast crawl to happen as long as neither you nor your newborn has any medical issues that demand immediate attention.
The process involves the following:
- The baby is born and then immediately placed on the birth parent’s belly or chest. Then baby can be dried, and if needed, stimulated while on the birth parent’s body.
- After a period of relaxation and awakening (this stage of a baby being quietly alert is thought to be the first part of exploring their new environment), spontaneous sucking and rooting behaviors begin.
- The baby will begin using their stepping reflex to push against the parent’s abdomen and crawl toward the breast.
- When they reach the breast, they may grasp, lick, or massage the area.
- After about an hour, most babies are able to find the nipple and begin sucking.
- After a good long feed, the newborn will fall asleep on the birth parent’s chest.
Want to see what the breast crawl looks like in action? Check out a video here.
How’s this possible? Many of your baby’s senses play a role in making the breast crawl happen!
The female breast has glands that secrete odors that attract a newborn (in addition to secreting colostrum and milk!) These attractive scents can make the breast area particularly interesting to a newborn.
Research tells us that babies prefer to look at faces after birth, and they also prefer high contrast images. This is one potential reason why babies will spend a significant amount of time gazing at their parent’s face after being born.
It’s also speculated that this is why the areola and nipple area darken during pregnancy in contrast to the rest of the breast. This darkness against a lighter background appears to be designed to catch the eye of a newborn!
After birth, your newborn will be ready for a feed — and there’s a good chance you’ll be ready for something to eat, too! Amniotic fluid exposes your little one to different flavors even before birth. Those familiar flavors will also be present in your breast milk.
Their parent’s voice is one of the most comforting sounds to a newborn baby. (Perhaps because this was a sound they heard frequently in the womb!)
Assuming the birthing parent continues to talk to the baby during the breast crawl and initial feed, babies may be drawn to and comforted by the familiar voice.
Additionally, the sound of the heartbeat is a noise a newborn has heard before, and it can be calming. The chest offers a location to continue to hear this noise as well.
Skin-to-skin touch is beneficial for numerous reasons. It helps regulate a newborn’s body temperature and blood sugar levels, results in less crying, and facilitates bonding.
There are many potential benefits to both the birthing parent and baby.
Some benefits for baby include:
Studieshave shown that babies who were kept skin-to-skin in the breast crawl position had better skin and body temperatures than those kept in a cot.
- Comfort: Studies have also shown that babies kept skin-to-skin in the breast crawl position cried less than those who were kept in a cot.
- Quality of attachment: Babies who do a breast crawl are more likely to have a better latch and success with early feeding. Because early success at latching can make a big difference in the length and success of breastfeeding overall, this is a considerable benefit.
Some benefits for the birthing parent include:
- Better release of the placenta and a reduced risk of postpartum hemorrhage: Breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact can result in a large rush of oxytocin, promoting good uterine contractions that result in the release of the placenta and closing off of blood vessels. Also, the pressure of the infant’s feet pushing off of the abdomen to reach the breast may help the uterus contract to expel the placenta.
- Less nipple pain: Because babies tend to achieve a better latch on the nipple with a breast crawl, the breastfeeding parent may have less damage to their nipples and breasts from a poor latch.
- Bonding: Those first few moments of staring into the eyes of your baby can help create a strong bond between parent and child. Plus, all the oxytocin surges should result in some loving feelings toward your little one.
There are times when a birth doesn’t allow for a breast crawl. For example, sometimes the circumstances of birth mean that the birthing parent or baby needs immediate medical care after labor.
Some ways that you can still reap some of the benefits of a breast crawl are:
- Skin-to-skin time: Many of the benefits of the breast crawl come from the baby being skin-to-skin with the parent for a prolonged period. This can (and should!) be done frequently in the first weeks even without the goal of a breast crawl. This special time promotes bonding, is calming to your newborn, and can regulate their body systems.
- Feeding on demand: Allowing an infant to determine when to feed and trusting their natural instincts is part of what makes the breast crawl so effective and beautiful. These concepts are also at play in demand feeding, which requires a parent to be aware of their baby’s hunger cues and feed them accordingly. This attention to their baby can promote bonding, increase a baby’s trust in their parent to meet their needs, and help establish an adequate milk supply.
- Laid-back breastfeeding: Laid-back breastfeeding (sometimes referred to as biological nurturing) allows the baby to find the breast and latch for themselves. This can be attempted anytime and not just during the immediate period after birth. It offers many of the same latching and breastfeeding benefits.
Your baby can seem so small and fragile when they’re first born that it might seem impossible they could do anything on their own.
However, your baby is capable of incredible things! For some parents, the first glimpse they get of their baby’s strength and determination is watching them perform a breast crawl to begin the first breastfeeding session.
Letting your OB-GYN, midwife, and nurses know that you want to experience a breast crawl with your newborn can help ensure it happens.
Finally, fear not if the initial feed isn’t able to occur via a breast crawl, as you can replicate many of its benefits. If you’re worried about breastfeeding or struggling with laid-back breastfeeding, lactation consultants can help you at any point in your nursing journey!