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The rooting reflex allows a newborn baby to find your breast or a bottle to begin feeding. It’s one of several reflexes, or involuntary movements, that babies are born with which help them through their first weeks or months of life.

A newborn may rely on the rooting reflex for the first few months of life, but by about 3 weeks, most newborns will turn their heads naturally and be able to move their head into position to start sucking. By 4 months, rooting is usually a voluntary action rather than a reflex.

The rooting reflex happens when the corner of a baby’s mouth touches the skin or nipple. You can also trigger the reflex by stroking or gently touching the corner of a baby’s mouth. A baby will then reflexively turn their head to follow and “root” in that direction.

Read on to learn more about the rooting reflex and how it helps babies to feed.

A baby is born with a set of reflexes that they develop in the womb. The rooting reflex, which helps a baby to find their mother’s breast, is one such reflex. The sucking reflex, which is also used for feeding, is another reflex that develops in the womb.

Some babies have a strong set of reflexes, while others may take longer to develop their reflexes, or they may need help to develop them.

Babies who are born very prematurely (before 28 weeks) may not yet have their rooting reflex. A rooting reflex usually starts to develop around 28 to 30 weeks. A premature baby may start sucking before this time, but be unable to find your breast.

If your baby has not developed their rooting reflex, you can hand express milk for them or guide their mouth to your nipple until they’re able to find the nipple on their own.

In some cases, a premature baby may need to be fed intravenously, or via a feeding tube, or by finger feeding in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Doctors and nurses at the hospital will help you develop a plan for feeding your baby until they’re ready to breastfeed on their own.

Babies that are bottle fed have a rooting reflex even though they don’t need to find your nipple. When feeding a bottle-fed baby, they may initially turn their head from side to side in search of a nipple. You can stroke or touch their cheek to get them to turn toward a bottle or to know that it’s time to eat.

The sucking reflex is different from the rooting reflex. The two serve different purposes, but both are important for allowing your baby to eat.

The rooting reflex happens first, allowing your baby to reflexively find your breast or a bottle nipple. The sucking reflex kicks in when the roof of a newborn’s mouth is touched. When this area is stimulated, your baby will begin to “suck” or drink. For example, when you place your nipple or a bottle nipple in your baby’s mouth, they automatically start sucking because of the sucking reflex.

Some babies are able to naturally start breastfeeding right away. Others may need a bit of help with their latch, or their rooting or sucking reflexes.

You can test your baby’s rooting reflex by gently stroking their cheek or mouth. They should turn their head in response to the touch, or look like they’re “rooting” from side to side.

If you’re concerned your baby isn’t rooting properly, talk to their pediatrician. The pediatrician may recommend a lactation consultant to help address any issues that arise with breastfeeding.

If you’re concerned your baby isn’t getting enough to eat, remember that in the first few days of life, newborns don’t need a lot of breastmilk or formula per feeding because their stomachs are very small. You’ll want to feed them frequently, though, especially if you’re breastfeeding. Frequent nursing can help your milk to come in.

Your baby’s diapers are your best way to confirm that they’re getting enough milk. After day 3, breastfed babies typically have about three wet diapers per day, and by day 5, about 5 or more wet diapers per day. The wet diapers will get heavier and may be more frequent as your baby grows.

Talk to your baby’s pediatrician if you’re concerned about the number of wet or dirty diapers, or if your baby isn’t gaining weight. The pediatrician may recommend a lactation consultant to address any issues with breastfeeding.

If you’re having trouble breastfeeding, the following tips may help:

  • Feed on demand, not on a schedule, or however often your pediatrician recommends.
  • Try hand expressing or pumping milk if your baby is feeding frequently but not gaining weight, which may help until your milk supply fully comes in.
  • Make sure you’re eating enough healthy, calorie-rich meals while breastfeeding.

Babies are born with a number of reflexes that they develop in the womb, several of which help them survive the first weeks of life. Some of those reflexes are listed below.

Reflex Appears Disappears
suckingby 36 weeks of pregnancy, seen in newborn babies but may be delayed in premature babies 4 months
rooting seen in most newborn babies, may be delayed in premature babies 4 months
Moroseen in most term and preterm babies 5 to 6 months
tonic neckseen in most term and preterm babies 6 to 7 months
graspseen by 26 weeks of pregnancy, seen in most term and preterm babies 5 to 6 months
Babinski signseen in most term and preterm babies 2 years
step seen in most term and preterm babies 2 months

A newborn’s reflexes are like their own personal tour guide to help them survive the first few weeks of life. The rooting reflex is important because it helps them to find a breast or bottle nipple, and be able to feed.

Not all babies get the hang of breastfeeding right away. If you’re concerned about your little one’s reflexes or that they aren’t latching, rooting, or sucking well, talk to your pediatrician or a lactation consultant. They can offer help and guidance.