Use these exercises before feeding or as a playtime activity. Be sure to stop any exercise that Baby dislikes. Always get permission from Baby to put fingers into his/her mouth. It is not necessary to do every exercise; only use those that are helpful for your baby. Before beginning, wash hands and be sure nails are short and smooth. It is best to work directly with a lactation consultant to determine which exercises are best for you and your baby.
Exercise 1: Use a finger (with a trimmed and filed nail) that most closely matches the size of your nipple. Place the back-side of this finger against Baby’s chin with the tip of your finger touching the underside of his nose. This should stimulate Baby to gape widely. Allow him to draw in finger, pad side up, and suck. His tongue should cover his lower gums and your finger should be drawn in to the juncture of the hard and soft palate. If his tongue isn’t forward over his lower gums, or if the back of his tongue bunches up, gently press down on his tongue (saying “down”) and use forward (towards the lips) traction.
Variation: This exercise may be especially helpful if done in the “charm hold.” In this position, Baby lies face down across a lap or arm, with body and head fully supported, while sucking on a finger. Allow Baby to suck on finger in this position until tongue is forward and down.
Exercise 2: Begin as in exercise 1, but turn finger over and press down on the back of tongue and draw slowly out, with downward and forward (toward lips) pressure on tongue. Repeat a few times.
Exercise 3: Gently stroke Baby’s lips until he opens his mouth, and then stroke his lower and upper gums side to side. His tongue should follow your finger.
Exercise 4: Touch Baby’s chin, nose and upper lip. When Baby opens wide, gently massage the tip of his tongue in circular motions pressing down and out, encouraging his tongue to move over his lower gums. Massage can continue back further on the tongue with light pressure as finger moves back on tongue and firmer pressure when finger moves forward. Avoid gagging baby.
Exercise 5: If a baby has a high or narrow palate and gags on the nipple or insists on a shallow latch, it may help to desensitize the palate. Begin by massaging Baby’s palate near the gum-line. Progressively massage deeper but avoid gagging Baby. Repeat exercise until Baby will allow a finger to touch his palate while sucking on a finger. It may take several days of short exercise sessions to be effective.
If Baby doesn’t open wide, gentle massage may help Baby to relax jaw and facial muscles. Baby may also be helped by a skilled body-worker such as a Chiropractor, Osteopath or CranioSacral Therapist who specializes in infant care. Begin with light, fingertip, circular massage, under Baby’s jaw, from back to front on both sides. Using fingertips, massage baby’s cheeks from center toward the temple on both sides. Massage in tiny circles around the mouth, near the lips, clockwise and counter clockwise. Massage around baby’s mouth, near the lips, from center outward, on both sides of the mouth, top and bottom. Gently tap a finger over Baby’s lips. Massage Baby’s chin.
These exercises are not intended to replace the in-person help of a lactation consultant, breastfeeding counselor or health care professional. Any delay in seeking expert help, may risk the breastfeeding relationship.
©2012-2014 Laura Spitzfaden, IBCLC, www.feedthebabyllc.com
This article was edited on December 30th 2014. The exercises are compiled from many sources and also reflect my own experiences working with breastfeeding parents and babies. The majority of them have been successfully used by La Leche League Leaders for decades. This article may be freely copied and distributed as long as it remains intact and is not used for purposes that conflict with the WHO code of marketing breastmilk substitutes and is not used for commercial purposes. Please contact me directly for access to a printable PDF.