You don't have to hold a healthy newborn for more than a few minutes to realize that the rooting reflex is a strong one. The baby doesn't care if you're a guy, a grandma or someone just passing through; if you hold him and touch the corner of his mouth, he'll start to root. Rooting is a way for your baby to find his food source, but it's also a way for him to communicate his needs to you.
All healthy full-term babies have certain reflexes when they're born. A baby doesn't have to think about initiating a reflexive action; it's automatic, as long as the baby has normal neurological development. The rooting reflex is a primitive reflex, present at birth. When you brush an object -- a nipple, the corner of your shirt, or anything else -- against the corner of his mouth, he turns his head toward the object and tries to find it with his mouth. This reflex doesn't develop until around 32 weeks of pregnancy, according to the International Lactation Consultant Association (ILCA), so a preterm baby might not exhibit it.
The primary purpose of the rooting reflex is to help your baby find the nipple. By touching the corner of his mouth with the nipple, you give him a clue where to look when he's hungry. One of the most confusing things you can do when trying to get your baby to latch on and nurse is to touch both cheeks at the same time. If you do this, he doesn't know which way to turn; he'll reward you with cries of frustration. Pushing on his head can also interfere with his rooting reflex and make it hard for him to latch on, the ILCA warns in its textbook, "Core Curriculum for Lactation Consultant Practice."
Your baby roots actively when he's hungry. If you notice your baby beginning to root when you hold him, it's a sign to feed him. If you wait until your baby cries to be fed, it will take longer to calm him down to eat. Watch for early signs, such as rooting, moving his head from side to side, opening his mouth, smacking his lips or sucking motions as indications he's ready for a feeding.
The rooting reflex doesn't last forever, or even all the way through infancy. By around age three weeks, your baby knows to turn toward the source of food and latch on to the nipple himself, the American Academy of Pediatrics explains. The rooting reflex fades away completely when it's no longer essential as a method for locating his next meal, around age two to four months, according to the ILCA, although it may persist longer in breast-fed infants.
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