Women, orcas and female primates, are the only ones among all mammals who have to learn how to breastfeed. Breastfeeding is not something that comes spontaneously, it is natural but not instinctive and it also depends on the culture and society you live in.
But what about babies? Is breastfeeding a learning experience for them too?
Babies learn how to breastfeed during pregancy in the womb, because biologically breastfeeding is key to the survival of our little ones. They are born expecting a breast and in the words of Lavinia Belli, a board member of the Norwegian La Leche League: “Breastfeeding may not be the best option for all mothers, but it is the best option for all babies.”
When do babies start to learn this?
Very soon, because the area around the mouth is one of the first to be formed in the embryo and one of the first to be recognized at a structural level. Inside the uterus, the baby:
- Begins to swallow amniotic fluid at around week 12-14 weeks of pregnancy
- Suction reflex appears at 15 / 18 weeks
- And the search reflex, which is the last one, will appear around week 32 of pregnancy
Why do babies inside the womb suck and swallow amniotic fluid?
Both reflexes are key before birth as they regulate the amniotic fluid. Just before birth a baby swallows around 1/4 of the amniotic fluid every day.
What if my baby is premature?
When a baby is born it has to coordinate the three reflexes: searching, sucking and swallowing. If it is born prematurely, it is immature and may show difficulties in this reflex coordination. By 32 weeks, in case of a premature birth, some are already able to suck* but it is usually not until they reach 34 to 35 weeks when they start to manage all of them.
And what do I have to do when the baby is born?
Straight after birth, the baby must be put into skin to skin contact with her mother’s body. Other routines can wait or can be performed on top of the mothers body.
When the baby is just born all her instincts lead her to seek the mother’s breast and start sucking. The noradrenaline hormone invades her brain and pushes her to find the breast. This behavior ensures that a baby will find the breast on her own and start to breastfeed. So the baby completes her birth by starting to feed and ensures that she puts into action all she has learned and practiced for months in the mother’s womb.
*Some premature babies can breastfeed well before 32 weeks of gestation.