While some parents take their baby's sucking skills for granted, parents of preemies and babies diagnosed with a failure to thrive know different. The sucking reflex doesn't develop until 36 weeks and even then, some babies struggle with something that should be fairly automatic. You may be asked to simulate your baby's suck reflex during bottle or breastfeeding to help her eat more efficiently. Proper stimulation should result in better feedings, a stronger suck and a happier, healthier baby.
Tickle the area right outside your baby's mouth with your finger or use your nipple to stimulate your baby's mouth. The suckling reflex usually responds to light touch around the mouth area, notifying your little one that it's time to eat. Often, when stimulated, your baby will automatically turn her mouth to your finger in preparation for feeding at your breast or at the bottle.
Tap the top of your baby's palette before a feeding, suggests the book, ''Supporting Sucking Skills in Breastfeeding Infants'' by Catherine Watson Genna. This gentle stimulation can feel similar to the sucking action of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth while eating.
Give your baby a pacifier when she's not eating. It is a tactic often used in neonatal intensive care units to teach preemies how to suck, even before they're offered nutritive feedings via breast or bottle. In fact, a study by the Instituto Fernandes Figueira, published in a 2008 issue of the Portuguese "Jornal de Pediatria" found that a nonnutritive pacifier could improve changes of breastfeeding rates among premature infants. Ninety-six preterm babies participated in the study, which was for six months' duration. The participants were randomly separated into a control and experimental group. The experimental group received a nonnutritive pacifier. The control group did not receive a nonnutritive pacifier. Both were fed via enteral feedings. At discharge, of the experimental group that received a nonnutritive a pacifier, 76 percent were breastfeeding, compared to 46 percent of the group who did not get a pacifier. The study concluded that giving babies pacifiers can stimulate an infant's suckling response.
Check the nipple on your baby's bottle if you choose to bottle feed. Choose a nipple that is as close to the human nipple as possible. Some nipples feel unnatural in a baby's mouth, which can result in slow or poor sucking reflexes. In general, look for nipples that have a flat underside, more like a natural nipple.
See a lactation consultant if your baby continues to struggle with sucking. Poor flow could be the culprit -- a baby not receiving enough milk might stop suckling altogether, according to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. A lactation consultant can check your flow and your breastfeeding technique and make suggestions to help your baby breastfeed more efficiently. You'll also need to check to ensure that your child is growing properly by seeing your pediatrician for regular well-baby checkups.