Some babies may suck incorrectly or may struggle with a weaker suck than others. A weak suck can lead to nipple pain and a low intake of milk.
A weak suck may also result in a lower milk supply, which contributes to less interest in the breast and therefore, the baby spends less time at the breast, to practice the art of breastfeeding.
Problems that may Cause a Weak Suck
• A sleepy baby: A baby may be extra sleepy due to medication given during labor, illness or Jaundice. Some babies are overstimulated during certain times of the day, leading to lethargy during feeding times. How to keep a baby awake while breastfeeding.
• Nipple confusion: If your baby is given an artificial nipple too early, it can lead to your baby not knowing how to breastfeed.
• Preemies: Premature babies may have immature nervous systems, which can lead to a weak suck.
• Neurological impairment: This can cause a weak suck. Any illness can do the same. Symptoms of neurological impairment include: Arching of the body and biting or clenching while feeding.
• Tongue problems: There is a range of tongue problems that can cause sucking problems. For example, poor latching technique, Tongue thrust, Tongue tie, short or long tongue, retracted tongue and tongue curling or sucking.
• Jaw clenching: Clenching of the jaw can also cause problems. Often called gum-biting or clamping.
• Sensory integration problems; this can cause “sensory overload" and makes it difficult for a baby to concentrate on feeding alone. See our section on sensory integration issues.
• Anatomical problems: May include a cleft lip/palate or high arched palate.
• Oral aversion: Oral aversion is when a baby resists anything that touches the inside of their mouth. This is usually the result of procedures done during and after labor, such as forceful suctioning.
• Floppy baby: A floppy baby may have low muscle tone or may have suffered from lack of oxygen during birth. These babies struggle to move at all and usually have a weak suck.
• Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome: Babies who were exposed to drugs in the womb may have problems sucking. These drugs may include alcohol, marijuana, antidepressants, methadone and many others.
Signs and Symptoms of a Sucking Problem
• The mother has sore nipples that are obviously the result of the hard palate rubbing on the nipple because the nipple is distorted after feeding.
• The mother has engorged breasts for longer than one week after birth; this means that her baby is not removing enough milk from the breasts.
• The baby cries excessively because he/she is hungry.
• Baby has a low output of urine and stools.
• The baby is gaining weight too slowly or not gaining weight at all.
• The baby may sleep on the breast, but cry if taken away from the breast.
• Make sure that the baby is latched on correctly.
• Use breast compression to increase milk transfer.
• Using an SNS (supplementary nursing system) can help the mother continue with breastfeeding while giving her baby supplements of pumped/donated breast milk or formula.
• Extra stimulation may help. For example, pat the baby on the outer edges of his/her lips before feeding, make the nipple firm and cold (with a cold compress) just before nursing.
• Nipple shields can sometimes help a baby latch on, especially if the baby has low muscle tone.
How can you Prevent a Sucking Problem?
Not all sucking problems can be prevented, but some can:
• The mother should avoid elective Cesareans. Prematurity can cause poor sucking reflexes and neurological problems.
• The mother should avoid giving her baby artificial nipples and pacifiers that can cause bad latching and sucking.
• The mother can make sure that her latching technique is efficient and that she and her baby are comfortable while breastfeeding.