Sucking Reflex in Infants & Premature Babies

Understanding Sucking Reflex in Babies

Medically Reviewed By
Dr. Gunjan Baweja (Paediatrician)
View more Paediatrician Our Panel of Experts

Babies are born with various reflexes that help them through their initial months of life. Sucking reflex is one of them, and might we say an important one as it helps a baby meet her nutritional requirements whether she is being breastfed or formula-fed. As a new parent, you must understand the sucking reflex of your baby. Although sucking reflex is considered to be a natural response in newborns, some babies may have difficulty in the same. This article provides detailed information on the sucking reflex and a simple trick to test your infant’s sucking reflex.

What is Sucking Reflex?

Sucking reflex is one of the most involuntary reflexes of a newborn baby. It is one of the primary functions in response to a baby’s oral stimulation. Sucking reflex is directly related with the rooting reflex wherein the baby searches for a source of food and the moment she gets it, sucking reflex allows her to suck on it and swallow the food. For instance, in the case of breastfed babies, a baby suckles on her mother’s breast to fulfil her requirements of breast milk.

When Do Infants Develop Sucking Reflex?

Considered as one of the seven natural reflexes in newborns, sucking reflex is developed in infants while they are in the womb of the mother. Sucking reflex is said to be initiated during the 32nd week of pregnancy and is completely developed by the 36th week of pregnancy. You may have seen your baby sucking her thumb in the ultrasound that’s because she is already practising the sucking reflex. Sucking reflex is extremely crucial during the first few months post-delivery and it even enables the mother to breastfeed the baby.

How to Test Sucking Reflex in Infants

It is very simple to test a baby’s sucking reflex, just place a finger or nipple on the roof of your baby’s mouth and see the response, she will start sucking immediately. Newborns find this action soothing and enjoyable, but it does not mean that she’s hungry all the time she does it. After 2-3 months, babies will start sucking their fingers and hands due to the hand-to-mouth reflex.

How to Test Sucking Reflex in Infants

Sucking Reflex and Breastfeeding

As stated above, sucking reflex is crucial for breastfeeding. It happens in two stages. First, the baby takes the nipple between the tongue and the roof of the mouth and then begins to suck the milk. It is important to note that not just the nipple but also the areola needs to go into the baby’s mouth so that she’s able to suck the milk from the breasts.

Premature Babies and Sucking Problems

Since premature babies are not fully developed, they might face difficulties in sucking. The common sucking issues in newborn babies are:

  • Muddled sucking pattern
  • Delicate and fragile lip movement
  • Impaired tongue movement
  • No stability in the inner cheeks
  • Unable to synchronize sucking, swallowing, and breathing together.

Premature babies will develop sucking reflex within the first few weeks of their birth. Until then they are fed using feeding tubes.

The trouble in synchronizing sucking and swallowing with breathing might be a cause of Infant Respiratory Distress Syndrome. This might pose a problem in feeding as they are unable to synchronize the sucking reflex with breathing and get tired easily. In this case, the baby is under high risk of getting malnourished.

Sucking Reflex Vs. Rooting Reflex

When babies are touched on their cheeks or lips, automatically, they turn their head towards the stimulus and make sucking movements, which is known as rooting reflex. Rooting and sucking reflex together ensure proper breastfeeding of the baby. Rooting reflex also helps babies find the nipples instinctively and swallowing and sucking reflex allows them to suck the milk and ingest it. Babies display a combination of rooting and sucking reflex through hand-to-mouth reflex when they suck their fingers.

Sucking reflex is very important for a baby to meet her nutritional requirements through breast milk. Any issues with regards to sucking reflex can lead to malnutrition in infants. You must discuss with your paediatrician if you find any irregularities in the sucking reflex of your baby.

Also Read: Let Down Reflex in Babies

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