Sucking reflex in babies: How it affects feeding and nutrition

Sucking reflex in babies: How it affects feeding and nutrition

Sucking reflex in babies helps your newborn to feed. Read how it affects breastfeeding and nutrition, and why premature babies may face sucking problems...

Sucking reflex in babies is one of the most important reflexes your baby is born with, as it helps your newborn to feed.

Sucking reflex is related to the rooting reflex. The rooting reflex happens first, allowing your baby to search for, and move towards the food source. The sucking reflex is triggered when the roof of a newborn baby's mouth is touched with your finger, nipple or even with a bottle nipple. When this area is stimulated, your baby will begin to “suck” or extract the milk.

support for bottle feeding mothers

Sucking reflex in babies

The sucking reflex is one of seven natural reflexes newborns have. These reflexes are involuntary movements that happen either spontaneously or as responses to different stimuli.

Sucking reflex develops when the baby is still in the womb. You might even have noticed your baby sucking his thumb or finger during your routine ultrasound! This reflex doesn't start until about the 32nd week of pregnancy and is not fully developed until about 36 weeks. 

sucking reflex in babies

Sucking reflex in babies is actually a 2-step process. First, the baby holds the nipple between his tongue and the roof of his mouth. Then, he will close his lips and actually begin to suck by moving the tongue up and down. This action is the expression of milk.

By 2 to 3 months of age, your baby will be sucking consciously. It will no longer be a reflex.

Here is a video which shows what sucking reflex in babies looks like:

Sucking problems in premature babies

Babies who are born premature may not have a strong sucking reflex at birth. They might also be unable to synchronise sucking and swallowing with breathing.

Premature babies will develop sucking reflex within the first few weeks of their birth. Until then, they might need to be fed through a feeding tube that’s inserted through the nose into the stomach.

sucking reflex in babies

Common sucking issues seen in premature babies are:

  • Disorganized or inefficient sucking patterns
  • Weakened lip seal
  • Impaired tongue shaping or movement
  • Weakened stability of the inner cheek
  • Unable to synchronize sucking, swallowing, and breathing together.

Trouble in synchronizing sucking and swallowing with breathing might be a cause of Infant Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS), a complication that affects preemies. Babies affected by this condition are unable to withstand long feeds and tend to tire easily. They could be at risk of poor nutrition.

Sucking reflex in babies and breastfeeding

The sucking reflex is important for babies to start breastfeeding. Sometimes mummies find it tough to initiate breastfeeding, and that may be because you are not triggering the sucking reflex in your newborn.

For the sucking reflex to kick in, a fair amount of areola also needs to go in, so that the tip of the nipple can touch the roof of the baby's mouth. Incorrect sucking can cause sore nipples leading to painful breastfeeding.

sucking reflex in babies

The breastfeeding process is actually a two-way stimulus. The mother’s breast automatically stimulates the baby’s lips to begin to feed, and at the same time the baby’s sucking stimulates the mummy to produce more milk for her little one.

The sucking reflex also has a calming effect on the baby. Apart from fulfilling his nutrition needs, contact with his mother satisfies the baby's need to feel safe and comforted. Which is why, babies seem to be most comfortable while sleeping at their mother's breast.

Any issues with regards to sucking reflex can lead to malnutrition in infants. If you’re concerned about your little one’s reflexes or notice that he or she isn't rooting, or sucking well, do consult your paediatrician or a lactation consultant.

Also READ: Breastfeeding your newborn 101: One hour, one week, three months

(Source: Healthline, VeryWell Family)

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