What’s Your Baby’s Nursing Style?

by Patty Onderko

What’s Your Baby’s Nursing Style?

How to make sense of your newborn’s breastfeeding habits

As soon as I’d position my little guy Theo within sniffing distance of my exposed nipple, he’d start crying frantically and shaking his head side to side maniacally like a shark about to tear my poor boob to shreds. His twin brother, Nate, would either calmly latch on to my other breast or flatly refuse it (and more often the latter, frustratingly), but he was never the crying, anxious blob that Theo was. It always felt like, if Theo had to wait another second for my milk, he’d spin out of my arms and into the kitchen, where he’d open a gallon of 2% and start guzzling. Yet when my nipple and his moving-target mouth finally connected, bafflingly, Theo would freeze. No sucking, no swallowing, not even any more shaking. He was like a quarterback who talked a good game but had no idea what to do once he got the ball.

After a couple days of this, I was reading the book Your Baby’s First Year, from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and came across a section, called Getting to Know Your Baby’s Feeding Patterns, that described five different nursing personalities, including the “Excited Ineffectives” — infants who “become frantic at the sight of the breast.”

What the??! Was the AAP spying on us? Because Theo was both excited and ineffective — and he wasn’t alone. The breastfeeding types were characterized by Yale University researcher Edith Jackson, M.D., during the 1950s, when she observed hundreds of nursing newborns in the university hospital’s maternity ward. If you had a healthy, full-term baby, you might recognize your tiny sucker in one — or all — of these profiles (adapted from the AAP’s Your Baby’s First Year and the original Yale study).

So, what’s your baby’s nursing style?

The Barracuda

Known, too, as “Hoovers” or “Little Vacuums,” these babies grasp the areola when put to the breast and suck energetically for 10 to 20 minutes.


How to Help Them

Get a good latch. Barracudas seem simple to manage: They know what to do, and do it well. But with a voracious eater, “you have to make sure the latch is deep and comfortable,” says Laura Viehmann, M.D., an AAP member and a private practitioner in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. “Otherwise, your baby will damage the breast.” It should look like she’s biting into a triple-decker sandwich, with her head back, chin up, mouth wide open, and lips flared.

Don’t put up with pain. Mama Barracudas might think ouch! is part of the game because their babies don’t take the time to latch on correctly before a feeding frenzy. It’s not. “Even if the first grasp is painful, by the second or third suckle, you should be comfortable,” says Dr. Viehmann. If your toes are curling, the latch isn’t right, so remove your tot from the breast (don’t pull her straight off; slip your pinkie finger into the corner of her mouth to break the suction) and try again.

Switch nursing positions often, if you like. Alternate holds so that your little vacuum doesn’t keep irritating those sore spots.


The Excited but Ineffective

In a frenzied cycle, these tots grasp the nipple with their mouths, lose it, and then scream in frustration. They need to be calmed down several times during each feeding.


How to Help Them

Respond early. Head off frustration by offering your breast at the earliest sign that he’s ready for it. Some clues: arousal from sleep, rooting (searching with his mouth), flexing of arms and legs, bringing hand to mouth, or moving mouth or tongue. If he shows signs in his sleep, you can even try to nurse him while he’s dozing in an attempt to ward off hunger.

Make feeding the priority. If your baby wakes up hungry from a nap, don’t change his dirty diaper. Let him eat, and then tend to the poop.

Try soothing strategies. To keep your baby focused, nurse him in a rocking chair; the motion is calming. Breastfeeding in a warm bath, or in any scenario that allows skin-to-skin contact, may also be comforting, says Jane Crouse, a La Leche League spokesperson. “Anything that reminds him of life in utero will help: warmth, movement, sound, closeness.”


The Procrastinator

These reluctant nursers can’t be bothered with breastfeeding during their first days — they wait for Mom’s milk to come in. Later, they may cry for the breast, then latch on for just a suck or two before quitting. They may seem like “easy” babies (they sleep a lot and cry less) but need more attention to make sure they eat enough.


How to Help Them

Offer food often. These sleepy tykes may not show hunger signs, so put her to the breast every other hour whether she’s interested or not, says Crouse: “She may not drink much, but she needs the opportunity and the practice.” You may even need to break the “never wake a sleeping baby” rule if your Procrastinator has gone more than four hours without a feeding (though talk to your doc about a longer sleeping stretch at night).

Don’t stress over quantity. It’s easy to worry about how much your unmotivated eater is getting, but newborns take in only one or two ounces at each feeding for the first week or so. Even if your session seems short, she may be getting all she needs.

Look to the poop. “A reliable sign of a well-breastfed baby is a bright-yellow, seedy bowel movement by day five,” says Jane Morton, M.D., a clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

Track her growth. All newborns lose weight during their first three or four days of life, but they shouldn’t drop more than 10 percent of their birth weight — and should regain it by about day ten, notes Dr. Morton.


The Gourmet

Gourmets, also known as Mouthers, like to play with the nipple and taste the milk before digging in. If hurried, they scream in protest, but once these gourmands find the milk to their liking, they settle down and nurse well. 


How to Help Them

Don’t rush. Yes, nipple-fingering and mouthing make breastfeeding in public difficult to do discreetly, but it also stimulates your hormones and encourages milk production. So even if you want to say “Drink it already!” take a breath and let him do his thing.

Insist on a proper latch. When your baby finally starts sucking, you’ll be tempted not to disturb him even if his latch isn’t right. Make yourself do it anyway. (Check out the latch-on advice under “Barracudas.”)

Enjoy it. Grab a magazine or a book — or simply watch and giggle at this little nurser’s lip-smacking and tongue-wagging — and try to relax.


The Rester

Also called Nipper-Nappers, these babes like to nurse for a few minutes, then rest, then resume. Some fall asleep on the breast, then wake an hour later ready for dessert. Their pattern can be confusing, but these babies cannot be hurried.


How to Help Them

Gently wake her. Try undressing or unswaddling your baby so she’s less cozy and more alert. Or play with her feet to interest her in drinking and delay her dozing.

Ignore the “switch sides” rule. Since a Rester may drink for only a minute before breaking, you don’t have to switch breasts at every feeding, or after ten minutes, as many books suggest. When to move her over? Switch eight times a day until your milk supply is in, then follow your boobs. Give her whichever one feels fuller. The other breast will let you know when it wants its turn.

Lend a hand. “Use your hands to pump milk into your baby’s mouth whenever she slows down,” suggests Dr. Viehmann. Find a firm spot on the breast (often near the armpits); massage it in the direction of your nipple until you hear her swallow.

Go with it. Before the end of the first month, your Rester will be on a more predictable schedule, so for now pretend you’re on island time. “Forget about the laundry, cooking, returning calls or e-mails,” Dr. Viehmann recommends, “and change your mind-set to ‘this is the only thing I really need to do today.’ ” Lying around with your baby is the most important thing you can be doing right now, so go with the flow and feel good about it.

Patty Onderko is a senior editor at Babytalk.