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Child Development & Parenting: Infants (0-2)
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Child Development & Parenting: Early (3-7)
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How to Feed

Angela Oswalt, MSW

Babies are born knowing for the most part how to eat by instinct, but they also need to be taught some aspects to getting their food. Babies are born with a sucking reflex that allows them to drink breast milk or formula, but new mothers often have to show them how to find or to connect to that food source before they can start sucking. Whether infants are going to eat from a breast or a bottle, similar techniques can be used to get them started.

The first step is finding a comfortable, relaxing, and safe position for mother or caregiver and baby. When both are relaxed and calm, feeding will be much easier. Feeding time can be a special time not only for providing nutrition, but also for providing nurture, love, and comfort. The act of feeding creates a bond between caregivers and baby as the baby learns to trust the caregivers for their needs and the caregivers strengthen their love toward the baby. Feeding should be done in a quiet, soothing place free from environmental stressors or distractions.

No matter what style of hold the mother or caregiver uses, the baby should feel protected and close to the their body and not dangling in space. Caregivers, especially breastfeeding mothers, should find and use at least two feeding positions so that babies don't become dependent on one and feel overwhelmed if that hold can't be used for some reason. Once the infant is in a snug and comfortable position, caregivers should present the milk source, either the breast or the bottle, to the infant. Even when a mother is breastfeeding, she still needs to support her breast with a free hand throughout the feeding so that the weight of the filled breast is resting on the baby's face.

Next, get the infant interested in taking the nipple by teasing their lips with the moistened nipple, which will make them open their mouths wide. When their mouths are open, the nipple should be place directly in the middle of their mouth and baby should take a wide grasp on the nipple. If mothers are breastfeeding, they should make sure that the infant is taking in at least one inch of the areola around all sides of the nipple. Infants actually suck on the areola and not the nipple. Suckling from the nipple directly will cause lessened or no milk flow and nipple soreness for mothers. When infants latch onto the breast or bottle, the sucking reflex takes over, and they will most often begin drinking naturally. As babies get older, they will learn how to take the bottle or breast as a habit, and caregivers may not need to provide as much assistance.

Caregivers can make sure the baby is getting the milk correctly by observing their drinking. When a baby is drinking properly, their lips will be sealed around the nipple facing outward from the mouth. If the baby's lips are tucked in around the nipple, caregivers should gently try to evert the lower lip with their index finger. If that doesn't work, they should gently disconnect the infant from the nipple and try to provide it again in order to help babies latch on correctly. If a mother is breastfeeding, she needs to carefully first break the suction between the mouth and breast gently by placing her forefinger between the lips and the skin to prevent trauma to her nipple and areola. This can be considered a mother or caregiver's first opportunity to teach or to discipline their child the healthy way to do things.