Science You Can Use: Why do my baby’s hands always get in the way?

Ever notice that, just when you’re getting your baby latched on, his hands always seem to get in the way?  They seem to be magically drawn to your nipple, or end up in your baby’s mouth.

The traditional advice has been to get these young babies’ wandering hands out of the way:  swaddle them down, pin them underneath a breast, smother them in cleavage, or even tangle them up in a nursing bra.

But what if those hand movements had a purpose?

In a paper published in Clinical Lactation (the journal of the U.S. Lactation Consultants Association) authors Catherine Watson Genna and Diklah Barak ascribe some meaning to these movements.

Historically, they say, these movements were thought to be random and purposeless.  This conclusion is partly a result of studying infant hand movements in the absence of the mother’s breast.  They were also typically observed when babies were held in traditional breastfeeding positions and while being directed to latch by their mothers.

But there’s a reason for just about everything in nature, and Watson Genna and Barak say that our prior conclusions are just another way we’ve underestimated babies.

The authors say that, if left alone, babies will use their hands in various ways to breastfeed.  If the baby’s face is touching the breast, babies may use their hands to push, pull, or shape the breast.  If the baby’s face isn’t touching the breast, babies may use their hands to search for the nipple, or to push away “perhaps to get a look at the nipple location.”

All told, say the authors, babies may use their hands to:

  • Locate the nipple
  • Shape the breast
  • Pull the breast into the mouth
  • Self calm (by sucking on hands, and then latching on to the breast in the same location)
  • Push away from the breast to look for the nipple

All this hand-to-breast touching has an additional function:  raising oxytocin levels in the mother.  The authors cite research from 2001 which found that when babies were held skin-to-skin with their mothers, newborns “invariably oriented to the breast and used massage–like hand movements on the mother’s breast and nipple area, which both caused increased maternal oxytocin levels and caused the nipple areolar area to become erect and more prominent to facilitate latch.”

Why didn’t we understand this before?  Many of these motions look meaningless when a baby is held in a traditional hold.  Once a baby is held in a laid-back position, they make a lot more sense.  “Breast boxing,” as Suzanne Colson terms it, now looks like a locating and massaging set of motions.

So, how to do you use this information to help your baby latch?  Watson Genna and Barak recommend starting in a semi-reclined (“laid back”) position.  If this positioning isn’t possible, they recommend using a cradle hold in which the baby’s tummy is placed very close against the mother’s tummy.  They note that some babies do well being placed with their heads above the nipple – they will “bop’ their way down to the breast.  And they suggest placing the baby with the chin on the breast and the nipple pointing toward the space between the nose and the mouth.

But probably the biggest implication of this paper is that, when it comes to babies’ hand movements, we should mostly get out of the way.*  The authors advocate not interfering with the baby’s hand movements through swaddling or pinning them down.  Once moms know that things like hand sucking have a purpose, everyone can relax and let the baby’s reflexes show the way.

*For mothers with damaged nipples, the authors recommend limiting hand searching, as this can result in some painful “location” movements!


13 thoughts on “Science You Can Use: Why do my baby’s hands always get in the way?

    1. LOL We’ve always joked that it was the baby’s way of saying ‘D@mn, that’s good milk. Give me another!’ (much like slamming a beer mug down on a bar would mean..subbing the hand for the mug).


  1. At 10 months my baby boy has started to point and babble about my boobies. He still continues to massage as he drinks then after a while, when he’s satisfied, he’ll sit up, look at the breast, touch them, on occasion “high five them” (thanks Melisa) and “talk” about them to me. Touching, then tasting. It’s really quite lovely. He seems to be realizing that I’m attached to them. lol Through the haze of the morning it seems he actually gave them a kiss. silly bean! 😀


  2. Makes sense, especially when mom in laid back position. But when baby is very new, the frantic hand swinging (I call it the helicopter) it can be very difficult to help latch. Most little ones are very happy to just hang out next to mom until they can sniff their way back to the nipple. However, a few still have a problem holding their baby as we are designed. Feedings tend to get delayed- one reason is “baby sharing time” w/visitors. We all need to respect this very special time period.


  3. YES. Finally something about this. When my son was born, everyone always wanted to swaddle him. From the beginning, it made me very uncomfortable trying to nurse this way. He seemed unsettled as well, sometimes almost panicked, as most adults would feel with their hands tied. I’m not for swaddling in general but I know some swear by it for sleep. Either way, just from experience, I would advise against keeping baby’s hands swaddled while breastfeeding. Funny that the science took so long to catch up. As a first-time mama it was evident to me that my newborn was using his hands with purpose at the breast.


    1. I’ve had the very opposite experience. I’m three weeks and two lactation consultants in and still trying to get a consistent latch. My little one FLAILS her arms (not just searching, massaging, or even slapping). At worst, when my nipples are sore, it’s very painful. At best, it very much gets in the way. And if I’m trying to use a nipple shield, forget about keeping it on with those hands going. I hope this article doesn’t discourage people with this issue from swaddling or having someone help guide hands to a better place.


      1. I have to get my husband’s help with getting my newborn to latch on to my left nipple by having him hold one of my baby’s hands. This nipple is pretty damaged and sore so the scratching, the rare pinch and the flailing kills. I’ll try to have my husband hold my sons’ hand to my breast though.


  4. All my sons hand movements and mannerisms from the newborn period are still the same now at 2 yrs old (and still nursing). Its obvious now (that all his movements are strong and controlled) the little things he was trying to do back then. He moves his head side to side to adjust the nipple in just the right spot in his mouth. He squeezes the breast on either side with his palms to adjust the shape of the breast to better fit his latching needs, and also just get a grip while he eats. He will sometimes just use his hand to find the nipple instead of his eyes (busy looking at something else). He also massages the breast while he nurses, which helps let down. The other thing he does (which I don’t like him to do, but try telling him that) is he will play with the other breast to get the let down started shortly before he switches sides, so its all ready to go.


  5. Oh my gosh, this is exactly what my twins used to do. It was impossible to nurse them becuase they either were distracting themselfs or each other with thier hands. I tried everything, and swaddling seemed to work best. But swaddling always took crazy amount of time and they both started hating being tightly swaddled. So then I found Sleepy Wings swaddling jacket on Amazon. What a change! Teir hands were tight, but they were still free otherwise. Nursing with this jacket is so much easier! I Highly reccomend!!!


  6. When my first was born, this caused so many issues. He would be just about to latch and then his little hand would pull the nipple away. I finally got into the habit of holding my breast with one hand, my sons head in the other, allow him to get his hands together at his mouth then come up from under his hands an push them away with my breast and it would allow him to hold my breast like a bottle and latch on wonderfully. it took me about three months to learn this, but has worked wonderfully with the four children that came after him as well. It helps push hands away from the mouth and put them in a position away from the nipple so baby can latch. My son now (five weeks old) squirts himself sometimes because he tends to grab my breast and squeeze before latching, however, I have noticed more during this pregnancy that my son massages my first breast when he is almost done with it and ready to move onto the second. I started to do this while pumping and noticed that I can get extra milk out after I stopped “squirting” (for lack of a better term) during expressing milk. When I pinch my breast like he does, it looks like “whiter” milk comes out. I imagine this is the back milk that comes later in the feeding (opposed to the fore milk that we start with at the beginning of the feeding).


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