The sensory side of breastfeeding

The health and bonding benefits of breastfeeding are generally well known, as the overwhelming amount of research confirms this as a “best start” practice for babies. The sensory aspects may be less known, unless you are finding a difficulty in this area is hampering the breastfeeding process. Your baby’s amazing sensory system is very busy even before he is born, and has an impact on everything he does. The flip side of this coin is that every experience he has also has an impact on his sensory system. All your baby’s sensory systems are working together to help him to make sense of his new world and then to respond appropriately in a complex process called sensory integration.

Sensory Integration is the ability to organise the senses your body is exposed to and to act appropriately on that information. Your little one’s amazing body has 7 senses to help him make sense of his world. He has 3 “near” senses (touch receptors, proprioceptors and vestibular receptors) which give him information about what is happening to his body and the immediate world around him. Proprioception provides input on his body’s position in space (e.g. whether his body is upright or lying down). The vestibular sense provides movement information, which is vital for balance. There are also 4 “far” senses which give him input on his environment. These include hearing, taste, smell and vision. Integration is complex. Each person’s response to sensory input results in unique behaviours. Enjoyment and functionally effective behaviour comes from the integration of ALL these senses simultaneously! What incredible assimilation your baby has to learn in time to come!

As caregivers, you will need to learn which senses are alerting and which are calming for your precious baby. Sensory input can have different effects on different babes! For instance, rocking may be calming for most babies. However, it may be alerting for some. Moreover, the physical and social aspects of his environment will influence your baby’s ability to respond appropriately. The key is to observe your baby’s behaviour on an ongoing basis, especially in new situations. Look out for signs of enjoyment and signs of sensory overload.

So how could these senses impact on breastfeeding? Let’s look at two sensory systems that could have a big influence: touch and movement. Breastfeeding is a high touch activity. If your baby craves touch and loves hugs and cuddle time, then breastfeeding is probably one of his most favourite activities!

You can increase the amount of touch stimulation he gets by:

  • feeding him skin-to-skin (with his clothes off against your skin),
  • holding him a little tighter (like a hug) rather than letting him lie passively in a feeding pillow,
  • encouraging him to use his little hands to stroke and move on your skin or holding his hand while he feeds,
  • stroking and rubbing his skin while he feeds (back, arm or leg rubs can be very calming for him).
If your baby seems to be sensitive to touch, you could try to limit the amount of touch he gets or changing the type of touch you give him by:
  • feeding him with his clothes on,
  • swaddle him while feeding (make sure his little hands are near his face and not tucked against his body),
  • allow him to lie in a feeding pillow,
  • don’t stroke him or touch him with light intermittent touches, rather use firm or holding touches.
Some babies love to move as much as possible and others prefer limited or predictable movement experiences. If your little ones likes to be rocked, jiggled and rolled, then you could try:
  • feeding in a rocking chair, sitting on an exercise ball or while walking (a baby carrier would be useful for this),
  • adding a vibrating mat under a pillow while he feeds,
  • having short movement breaks in between (e.g. sitting him up and bouncing gently on your lap).
If your baby prefers little to no movement while feeding:
  • use a feeding pillow to keep his position still,
  • try feeding him while lying down on your side with him lying next to you and pillows propping him from behind to keep him in the correct position,
  • feeding while he is in a wrap, carrier or sling to help him feel contained.
Similarly, if your baby prefers more or less light or sound, you can adjust his feeding environment to help him stay calm and alert while feeding so that he does not get overwhelmed and fussy and struggle to feed properly.

Breastfeeding is a combination of instincts and learned skill and sometimes a small change can make the world of difference to how you and your baby experience it. If you are struggling with breastfeeding, there may be a number of reasons, not all of them sensory related. It would be helpful to talk to a Lactation Consultant as soon as you realise this rather than waiting it out, as bad habits and sore nipples can be more difficult to sort out the longer you leave them. A Lactation Consultant will also be able to refer you on to other specialists depending on what the difficulties are. If your baby gags at the breast, struggles to latch properly, cries inconsolably so that he cannot feed or his little body goes rigid every time he feeds you need to seek help.

This amazing experience is not always easy, but if you and your baby can work out the dance it can be such a special time. The health, bonding and sensory advantages are not only restricted to the relatively short time of his life that he is breastfed, but research is showing that the benefits will follow him into adulthood! 

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