Science Explains Why Newborns Move Instinctively Towards a Nipple!

Science Explains Why Newborns Move Instinctively Towards a Nipple!

If left on the tummy of the mother, a newborn can actually crawl all the way to the breast and latch on the nipple! But do you know why?

My newborn son was the most helpless creature I have ever held. His feeble voice, tiny hands, and a reluctance to open his eyes immediately after getting up made him seem so fragile. But, if there was one thing he could do, it was to seek his mum’s nipple for breastfeeding!

It is a known fact that infants can actually move towards the breast seeking milk. When a baby delivered by an unassisted vaginal birth is kept on the mother’s tummy, she will crawl towards the nipple and in the process massage the breast and prime it for suckling. If left undisturbed, she will try and successfully latch on to the breast and start breastfeeding. And all of this within minutes of being born!

In fact, the ‘Breast Crawl’ is one of the primitive reflexes infants demonstrate, in addition to the rooting and sucking reflex. However, the reason for this happening was not proven conclusively until quite recently when 4 Italian scientists conducted a study to find out just that.

The study 

Science Explains Why Newborns Move Instinctively Towards a Nipple!

A group of Italian scientists were curious about the reason for the breast crawl. They studied 41 full term singleton infants delivered vaginally and their mothers. The study was conducted at Policlinico Abano Terme, Italy, between January 1, 2015, and February 28, 2015. 

The idea was to find out what prompted the newborn to seek the Nipple Areola Complex (NAC). They studied many aspects of both the newborn and the mother, including the mode of delivery, the baby’s birth weight, the temperature of the NAC, the temperature of the neonate’s lips, and gender of the baby. 

Nature ensures that the baby derives her nutrition by giving her reflexes. And the study was going to find out ‘how’. 

Results of the study

The study found out that on the first two days of birth, the difference between the neonatal lip temperature and the temperature of the NAC was significant. And this establishes a gradient of heat. In other words, the neonate moves towards the nipple seeking heat, much like a heat-seeking missile!

It was always known that the baby is drawn towards the breasts by their milky smell. However, this study finds a more specific reason and explains the crawl. 

That said, the scientists agree that there are limitations in the study. The findings were not compared to another group of infants, making the study design weaker. In addition, factors like the psychological conditions of the mothers were not assessed, something that could have affected the study results.

What it means for parents

Science Explains Why Newborns Move Instinctively Towards a Nipple!


Well, this is not just a fancy yet irrelevant study. This goes to show that infants, even before they can open their eyes, can crawl towards the breast. While the choice of feeding the baby is entirely up to the parents, the importance of breastfeeding is established all over again.

Two things are apparent from the study. Firstly, infants seek the NAC due to the temperature difference and the ‘mum smell’. And secondly, letting the baby be in close contact with you is going to help her establish a good latch quicker. 

So, for first-time mums who are interested in breastfeeding their babies, this is a new motivation. In addition to breastfeeding your baby, give as much skin-to-skin contact as you can. This might mean not sending her to the nursery between feeds on the first day. However, it will ensure that your baby will have a perfect latch early on.

Mums, did your little one exhibit this? Share your experience in the comments below. 

(Image: Bambooshoots Photography)

Also, read Everything you need to know about lip and tongue ties


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Written by

Anay Bhalerao

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