How Newborns Are Like Kittens

The breast crawl is an instinctive movement most babies make immediately after being born, once placed on Mama’s stomach or chest.

Have you ever seen newborn kittens, still blind, scramble over to Mama Cat and find their way to her nipples?

Karolinska Institute

The breast crawl is the human version of that, described in 1987 in Sweden at the Karolinska Institute:

Immediately after birth the child was dried and laid on the mother’s chest. In the control group a regular behavioural sequence, previously not described in the literature, was observed. After 15 minutes of comparative inactivity, spontaneous sucking and rooting movements occurred, reaching maximal intensity at 45 minutes. The first hand-to-mouth movement was observed at a mean of 34± 2 minutes after birth and at 55+ minutes the infant spontaneously found the nipple and started to suckle.

These findings suggest that an organized feeding behaviour develops in a predictable way during the first hours of life, initially expressed only as spontaneous sucking and rooting movements, soon followed by hand-to-mouth activity together with more intense sucking and rooting activity, and culminating in sucking of the breast.

Babie’s Find Their Way

Babies rely on their senses to find the breast to suckle.  Immersed in a completely new environment – their senses of smell, taste, and vision adapting moment by moment – auditory cues and touch also play a role in Baby feeling comfortable and safe enough to explore. Researchers believe that our sense of smell plays the most important role in a successful breast crawl. Studies have shown that babies prefer the scent of their mother’s unwashed breast to that of a recently washed breast. It is thought that washing the breast strips away or reduces natural odours secreted from glands on the nipple and areola.

Visually, we know that newborn babies can detect their mother’s face and can follow it for a short distance which leads us to believe that a newborn would also be able to recognize the nipple and areola, thus leading the newborn to sustenance.

It has been shown that newborns and babies still in utero prefer the sound of their mother’s voice: it has the effect of decreasing their heart rate and encourages suckling for longer.

We’ve long known that skin to skin contact as soon as possible was beneficial to both Mama and Baby because it regulates temperature, results in less crying, and facilitates bonding – but now researchers indicate that skin to skin contact improves immediate and long-term breastfeeding success.

So that’s the breast crawl, in a nutshell. Aren’t humans incredible?

BabySarah Cosman