Latching on is the way your baby takes your nipple and areola into her mouth to nurse. It is absolutely the most important aspect of breastfeeding. Without a proper latch, your baby will not get the milk she needs and your breasts won't be stimulated to produce more, initiating a vicious cycle of poor milk demand and poor milk supply. What's more, your breastfeeding nipples may become cracked and feel mighty painful when the latch isn't right.

What is a proper breastfeeding latch?

It's a myth that babies are born knowing how to latch on and breastfeed correctly. The proper latch often takes time, trial and error, and yes, sore nipples.

The ideal latch encompasses both the nipple and the surrounding areola, the pinkish-brown flat circle that became darker during pregnancy. Ever wonder why areolas darken during pregnancy? Mother Nature wisely designed them to serve as visual cues for your newborn so she'll close her mouth on the areola and not on the nipple alone.

Though breast milk comes out of the numerous tiny openings in the nipple, your baby's gums need to compress the areola and the milk sinuses located underneath it to actually start the flow. If not, your milk won't let down (flow out) and new milk won't be produced.

How to get baby to latch, step by step

Here's a guide to helping your baby latch on and get the nourishment and comfort she needs:

  • Once your baby is in a good breastfeeding position, hold your breast with your free hand.
  • Place your thumb above your nipple and areola at the spot where your baby's nose will touch your breast. Your index finger should be in the spot where your baby's chin will touch the breast.
  • Lightly compress your breast, giving it a shape more closely resembling your baby's mouth.
  • Bringing your baby to your breast, stroke her cheek to allow the rooting reflex to kick in, and turn her mouth toward your breast; then tickle her lips with your nipple until her mouth is open wide (like a yawn).
  • Quickly bring her to the breast (without pushing or squashing her head), allowing her to take your nipple and areola into her mouth. She won't get the entire areola in her mouth, especially if yours is large, and that's okay — as long as she grabs onto a good part of it.

What a good breastfeeding latch looks like

You'll know you've got a proper latch if your baby's chin and tip of her nose are touching your breast. You'll also notice her lips flanged out (like a fish) instead of being tucked in. Let the feeding begin. Once you've got the proper latch, your baby will fall right into the rhythmic suck-swallow-breath pattern of suckling.

Signs that baby isn't latching properly

If you feel nipple pain while nursing, something's not right. This means your baby is likely chewing on your nipple instead of gumming the areola. The fix: Unlatch (break the suction by putting your finger into the corner of her mouth), and try again.

Ditto if you hear clicking noises, which indicate your baby's not latched on properly and is likely only sucking the nipple. Again, unlatch and start over.

Sometimes your baby may be so eager to suck that she grabs onto any part of the breast (missing the mark completely) and continues to suck even if no milk is forthcoming. The result: a painful bruise on your oh-so-tender boob — and a very hungry baby. Unlatch and redirect that misguided little mouth to the nipple and areola.

If she's fussing, chewing, rooting and gaping, turning red, or making clicking sounds, chances are your baby's getting a mouthful of boob and air instead of milk. Unlatch baby’s grip and begin the lip tickling anew to get baby to latch on with the nipple and the areola in the mouth. 

In the beginning, it might take quite a few tries to latch properly. Keep at it. Your baby will be happier in the long run if those efforts bring a mouthful of milk rather than a mouthful of air.

Best nursing positions for helping baby latch

How and where you breastfeed matters, for your comfort and your baby's nourishment. Studies suggest new moms who try at least two breastfeeding positions are more likely to breastfeed for more than six months. 

Getting comfortable varying the way you nurse will make it easier for you to adapt your style to your baby's feedings habits. Switching up positions may also reduce breast pain or discomfort. Experiment with these different options for an improved latch:


This position works especially well for newborns. Sit up in a comfortable chair or rocker and relax your arms. 

Now hold your baby in the crook of your arm and rest her tummy against yours. Supporting her head, tilt her towards your breast until she latches on, then continue to cradle her head as she feeds.

Cradle hold

Instead of supporting your baby with the arm on the opposite side, you prop her up with the arm on the same side as the nursing breast. Some moms like to use a pillow for support in this position.

Football hold

The football hold positions your baby at your side, facing you, with her legs tucked under your arm (yes, like a football) on the same side as the breast you're nursing from. This position is helpful if you have had a C-section (and don’t want any pressure on your belly), have a small or premature baby, have twins or have large breasts.

Laid back

The laid-back position is great for women with small breasts. You lean back and allow your baby to take the breast from any direction. Gravity, rather than your arms, will keep her close to you.

Side lying 

This position is great for middle-of-the night feedings. Both you and baby lie tummy to tummy, while you position the breast to her mouth. Make sure there is no loose bedding around your baby that could pose a suffocation hazard.

Why a good breastfeeding latch is important

A good latch is the foundation of successful breastfeeding. It allows your baby to feed freely, and stop when she's satisfied. It's also the only way to ensure your breasts are stimulated to produce more milk.

Common latching problems and solutions

Having trouble breastfeeding? Here's how to fix a couple of the most common latching problems:

  • Poor positioning. Don't hunch over your baby and push your breast into her mouth. Instead, try bringing your baby to you.
  • Baby's body is out of line. Make sure your baby’s head and body are facing you, so she can focus squarely on the task at hand.
  • Baby's body is too far away. Mealtime is impossible if your nipple is out of reach.
  • An empty breast. Your baby may not latch because little or nothing comes out when she sucks.
  • Flat or inverted nipples. It can be more difficult, but not impossible, for a baby to latch on.

Getting help with your baby's breastfeeding latch

If your nipples are inverted, breastfeeding may take some more effort but it's still possible. Some moms find that pumping helps. Others use a nipple shield or shell between feedings to make the nipples easier to draw out.

If you're still having trouble after a few breastfeeding attempts, consider hiring a lactation consultant, who can go over the basics of breastfeeding with you and help you overcome any latching setbacks.