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Dr Virginia Thorley, OAM, PhD, IBCLC, FILCA

International Board Certified Lactation Consultant


Baby's hands and how they use them - helping the milk to flow

Posted on February 8, 2014 at 8:28 AM Comments comments (4)
Almost twenty years ago a mother, whose baby had just head-butted her breast, asked my why he was doing that. I had been around farm animals and so I knew that calves and goat kids head-butted their mothers to make the milk "let down"; that is, to stimulate the milk ejection reflex (MER).  Cows and nanny goats have leathery udders and so only a vigorous action would be felt. This isn't the usual way that human babies do it - and so I started observing babies at the breast, to see what they did.
Very soon, I realised that babies have their own way.  They use their hands. What they usually do is to place a little hand on the breast and gently push. Mothers feel the pressure and look down at the cute little hand - and there is a surge of oxytocin, the hormone that works the MER. The milk is released and the baby starts drinking again.
This seems to work even when mothers know what is happening.  In fact, when the MER needs a little help I sometimes ask a mother's permission to place her baby's little hand on her breast. I get her to focus on his hand, talking about how it looks, the dimples on the knuckles, and so on. Its seems magical when he starts drinking again.
This natural process is messed up if a baby's hands are restricted, in the belief that they need to be controlled. So frustrating for babies!
For years I have shared this information with one mother at a time, about how babies use their hands. When I mentioned it to a group of other health professionals a few years ago, it was a "lightbulb" moment for them!  They had seen babies do this, but had never made the connection about WHY. Whether you are a mother, a family member, or a health professional, you may find this information useful.
This is the second of three topics about the importance of babies' hands in breastfeeding.