If you're a new breastfeeding parent (or a parent newly returning to breastfeeding), you may have been instructed to keep your baby swaddled or otherwise tuck her hands down whilst breastfeeding. After all, those squirmy baby hands can get in the way of ensuring a good latch! As it turns out, however, current research shows that baby's hands play an important role in facilitating breastfeeding in several different ways.
In a recent review on Science & Sensibility, blog administrator (and doula and Lamaze educator) Sharon Muza reviewed the research paper Facilitating Autonomous Infant Hand Use During Breastfeeding by Catherine Watson Genna, BS, IBCLC, RLC and Diklah Barak, BOT. In her review, Sharon points out:
[The authors] share that babies that hug the breast with their hands are helping to stabilize their neck and shoulder girdle, by pulling together the shoulder blades. Hand movements, by the infant on the breast, increase maternal oxytocin. It also causes the nipple tissue to become erect, which facilitates latch. Babies are best able to use their hands against gravity, lifting them up, when their hands are in their field of vision. The hands are used along with the lips and tongue to draw the nipple into the mouth, a behavior that disappears around 3-4 months of age.
And if you think baby's hands fluttering about are attempts at pushing your breast away, you may be right -- but it's for good reason:
Infants use their hands to push and pull the breast to shape the breast and provide easier access to the nipple. Newborns and young infants also use their hands to push the breast away, possibly to get a better visual sense of the location of the nipple. Genna and Barak also state that an infant may feel the nipple with their hand, and use the hand as a guide to bring their mouth to the nipple.
I encourage you to click through to Genna and Barak's paper -- it provides multiple photos demonstrating positioning and detailed instructions (in easy-to-read language) for facilitating hand use during breastfeeding.
The next time you sit down to feed your newborn (or if you're reading this in preparation for a new little one), remember to unswaddle (and undress, if possible -- skin-to-skin contact also helps facilitate breastfeeding and is beneficial for development and bonding) and allow your baby's hands to wander as they see fit. She may be brand new, but her feeding instincts are innate and strong. Follow your baby's cues!