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How do babies know where the breast is?

Breastfeeding is a crucial aspect of newborn care, providing essential nutrition and immunity to infants. It is a natural and instinctual process that has been practiced by humans for centuries. One of the fascinating aspects of breastfeeding is how newborns are capable of finding the breast and initiating breastfeeding within minutes of birth. This phenomenon, known as the breast crawl, highlights the innate abilities and reflexes that newborns possess. In this article, we will explore the breast crawl phenomenon and delve into the factors that contribute to a newborn’s ability to locate the breast.

The Breast Crawl Phenomenon

The breast crawl refers to the instinctual movements and behaviors exhibited by newborns to find and latch onto the breast for breastfeeding. This phenomenon is seen in the first minutes or hours of life and is facilitated by the presence of specific reflexes and the innate sensory abilities of the newborn.

Role of Reflexes in the Breast Crawl

Newborns are born with several reflexes that aid in their survival and development. Two reflexes, in particular, play a significant role in the breast crawl: the rooting reflex and the sucking reflex.

The rooting reflex is a natural response in which a newborn turns their head towards a stimulus that touches their cheek or mouth. This reflex helps the baby locate the breast by turning their head towards the source of touch and seeking out the nipple. The sucking reflex, on the other hand, allows the baby to instinctively suck and extract milk from the breast once latched.

Factors that Contribute to Successful Breast Crawling

While the breast crawl is a natural instinct for newborns, certain conditions and factors can influence its success. Here are some factors that contribute to successful breast crawling:

1. Skin-to-skin contact: Immediate skin-to-skin contact between the mother and baby after birth promotes bonding and facilitates the breast crawl. The close proximity allows the baby to explore and seek the breast more effectively.

2. Smell and chemical signals: Newborns have a keen sense of smell, and they can recognize the smell of amniotic fluid and the unique scent of their mother’s breasts. These scents act as cues for the baby to locate the breast.

3. Maternal hormones: The hormonal changes that occur during childbirth can influence a mother’s scent and facilitate breastfeeding initiation. Oxytocin, often referred to as the “love hormone,” plays a vital role in promoting breastfeeding behavior in both mother and baby.

Newborn Sensory Development

Understanding the development of a newborn’s senses is crucial in comprehending how they can locate the breast during the breast crawl.

Development of the Sense of Smell in Newborns

Newborns have a highly developed sense of smell right from birth. They can distinguish their mother’s scent from other individuals in the room. This strong sense of smell helps the baby locate the breast and aids in initiating breastfeeding.

Importance of Smell in Locating the Breast

The scent of the mother’s breast milk serves as a powerful attractant for the newborn. The combination of the smell of amniotic fluid and the unique scent of the mother’s milk guides the baby towards the breast during the breast crawl.

Role of Touch and Tactile Stimulation

Tactile stimulation plays a significant role in the breast crawl phenomenon. The baby’s skin is highly sensitive and responsive to touch. When the baby’s cheek or mouth is touched, the rooting reflex is triggered, causing the baby to turn towards the source of touch. This tactile stimulation helps the baby locate the breast.

Maternal Factors Influencing Infant Breastfeeding Behavior

Maternal factors can have a direct impact on an infant’s ability to locate the breast during breastfeeding initiation.

Scent and Chemical Signals Emitted by the Mother

A mother’s scent carries powerful chemical signals that can attract the baby to the breast. The unique combination of maternal hormones, pheromones, and the scent of breast milk provides cues to the baby during the breast crawl, helping them find the breast.

Role of Maternal Hormones in Facilitating Breastfeeding Initiation

The hormonal changes that occur during childbirth, particularly the release of oxytocin, are crucial in facilitating breastfeeding initiation. Oxytocin promotes a sense of bonding between the mother and baby, making the breastfeeding experience more comforting and familiar for the newborn.

Skin-to-Skin Contact and its Impact on Breast-Seeking Behavior

Immediate skin-to-skin contact between the mother and baby is highly beneficial for breastfeeding initiation. The physical closeness and warmth experienced during skin-to-skin contact triggers a cascade of responses in the baby, including the desire to seek out the breast for nourishment.

Infant Factors Influencing Breast Localization

In addition to maternal factors, infants have certain innate factors that contribute to their ability to locate the breast.

Newborn Rooting Reflex

The rooting reflex is a powerful instinct that helps newborns find the breast. When a baby’s cheek or mouth is touched, they turn their head towards the stimulus in a reflexive manner. This turning of the head allows the baby to position themselves for latching onto the breast.

Sucking Reflex and Its Role in Breastfeeding Initiation

The sucking reflex is another innate ability of newborns that aids in breastfeeding initiation. Once the baby latches onto the breast, the sucking reflex allows them to extract milk and establish a breastfeeding rhythm.

Visual Cues and Eye-Hand Coordination

While the sense of sight is not fully developed in newborns, visual cues can still help them locate the breast. Babies can visually track movement and objects, which assists them in coordinating their hand and mouth movements during the breast crawl.

Benefits of the Breast Crawl Phenomenon

The breast crawl phenomenon offers numerous benefits for both the mother and the baby.

Successful Breastfeeding Initiation and Establishment of Milk Supply

When the newborn finds the breast and initiates breastfeeding early on, it helps establish a good milk supply for the mother. Early and frequent breastfeeding also ensures adequate nutrition and hydration for the baby.

Bonding and Attachment Between Mother and Baby

The breast crawl promotes bonding and attachment between the mother and the baby. The intimate contact and interaction during the breast crawl create a sense of security and trust in the newborn, strengthening the emotional connection between mother and child.

Impact on Infant Development and Long-Term Health Outcomes

Breastfeeding, initiated through the breast crawl, has numerous short-term and long-term health benefits for the baby. It provides vital antibodies and nutrients, supports healthy growth and development, and reduces the risk of various health conditions later in life.

Supporting the Breast Crawl in Hospital Settings

In hospital settings, it is crucial to create an environment that supports and encourages the breast crawl.

Importance of Immediate Skin-to-Skin Contact After Birth

Immediate skin-to-skin contact between the mother and the baby should be prioritized after birth. This promotes the breast crawl experience and establishes a positive foundation for breastfeeding.

Education and Training for Healthcare Providers

Healthcare providers play a crucial role in supporting breastfeeding initiation. Providing education and training to healthcare professionals about the breast crawl phenomenon can help create a supportive environment for breastfeeding mothers.

Encouragement and Support for Breastfeeding Mothers

Breastfeeding can sometimes be challenging, and mothers may need additional support and encouragement. Offering breastfeeding support services, such as lactation consultants and peer counseling, can assist mothers in overcoming any difficulties they may encounter during the breastfeeding journey.


The ability of newborns to find the breast and initiate breastfeeding through the breast crawl is a testament to the remarkable instincts and capabilities of these little ones. By understanding this phenomenon and the factors that influence it, we can better support and promote successful breastfeeding initiation. Trusting in a baby’s innate abilities and providing a nurturing environment can set the stage for a healthy and fulfilling breastfeeding journey between mother and child. Remember, if you are a breastfeeding mother, trust your baby’s instincts, and seek breastfeeding support if needed.


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