"Latch"

Among all of the terms associated with human lactation and with my profession as a lactation consultant, there are none that more irritating than this particular, unfortunate term: "latch." It's a word that comes up in the bulk of the inquiries I receive from families looking for help with their new babies. 

"We're concerned about the latch."
"We'd especially like you to take a look at the latch."
"We're just not sure that the baby is latching correctly."

And, of course (at least, I hope this would be obvious!), I don't hold the use of this grating word against anyone reaching out to me for help; even when people know very little about nursing a baby, they tend to know the word "latch," and they usually have been led to believe that the baby's latch—and what it looks like—is very important. 

I even would put the young, first-time-mother version of myself into this category. Here's what I knew about nursing during my first [twin] pregnancy, when I was 22 years old: 

  1. I wanted to do it.
  2. I should feed my babies "on demand."
  3. The babies might not "latch."

Since I hadn't read any books or articles (not even one!) about nursing before my babies were born, all of my [limited] knowledge came from online message boards, where in the last week of my pregnancy, I posted a last-minute call for tips regarding nursing twins and nursing after a c-section. The other mothers of the internet didn't have much to say, but they wished me luck and shared horror stories of their babies not "latching," which was the first time I'd heard the term. Yikes, I thought. What if my babies don't "latch"?

At the hospital where my twins were born, this talk of "latch" continued. 

"How's his latch?" the nurses would ask, whenever they came into the room to check on us, and the mere mention of the word made me feel anxious and uncertain. How was I supposed to know how the latch was? I'd never "latched" a baby on before. If there's a right way and a wrong way to do it, it seemed likely that I was doing it the wrong way. 

In the weeks that followed, when I suffered with painful, cracked, bleeding nipples, I saw several lactation consultants, and always asked them to check the babies' latches. "The latch looks fine," the LCs would tell me, repeatedly. The "latches" looked fine, but nursing was still really hurting me. It didn't feel fine at all. I followed all sorts of instructional diagrams online and in the books that I'd finally thought to read, and none of the tips about how to "latch" a baby on were helping things to feel more comfortable. 

All this is to say, I hated the word "latch" even before I became a lactation consultant and had good reason to eschew it. 

For starters, as I've shared above (via Merriam-Webster), the word "latch" is not a noun, it's a verb. There is never a grammatically appropriate time to refer to a baby's "latch." The word "latch" can be used as a noun, informally, when referring to the latch on a gate. But that's not what people are talking about when they're talking about feeding babies. What we mean to say when we say "latch" in regards to a nursing baby is "attachment."

The baby is attached to the breast while feeding.
I can asses a baby's attachment at the breast.
A baby can have difficulty attaching to the breast to feed.

And this is the word—attachment—that you'll see me using here in the blog. Using the word "latch" in place of "attachment" makes it sound much more complicated that it needs to, and conjures fear and feelings of incompetence and insecurity. 

"Is she latched on right?" (New parents ask me this question all the time.)
"You tell me," I say. "How does it feel?" 

How to know that baby is attached well at the breast (hint: it doesn't really matter what it looks like from the outside): 

  1. Nursing doesn't hurt (after the initial 30-60 seconds, when there may be some residual pain if nipples are damaged).
  2. Baby is getting plenty of milk (as evidenced by weight gain and soiled diapers).


Signs that something might not be quite right with the baby's attachment:

  1. Nursing is painful.
  2. After nursing, the nipple looks misshapen (not round), and/or pale/blanched (as if blood has been drained from the tip).
  3. Baby isn't getting as much milk as she or he needs, despite frequent (~ 12 times/day) nursing (as evidenced by lack of weight gain and/or lack of soiled diapers).
     

Often, when nursing is painful, or when baby isn't able to nurse effectively, the issue isn't so much the baby's attachment as it is baby's mouth anatomy and sucking skills. An experienced IBCLC can help you to assess what might be going on inside the baby's mouth (where we can't see). The attachment can look fine and great from the outside, but if it doesn't feel good, something is amiss. And if nursing does feel good, and baby is gaining weight well, you can rest assured that your baby's attachment is just fine, even if it doesn't look anything like the way the diagrams say it "should."

 
Baby Liam in 2015

Baby Liam in 2015