Becoming distractibile at the breast

Why does my older baby keep looking around while breastfeeding?

As babies grow, they become increasingly interested in the world around them. While breastfeeding, they can suddenly turn away from the breast or even let go to look around. This is called distractibility. There is no need to breastfeed in a quiet place as distractibility is not a cause of the baby not taking in enough milk. Turning quickly without letting go can cause pain in the mother and may need to be addressed.

A) Describing distractibility

As babies grow, they become increasingly distractible and interested in their surroundings. (Courtesy Dr. Kerry Atkins. Photo credit Dana Pugh.)

Newborn babies are very focused on getting enough milk and are rarely distracted by sights and sounds around them while breastfeeding. As babies grow and develop, they become more interested in the outside world.

1) Nip-lash

After one month, while still latched onto the breast, they may suddenly turn their heads toward a distraction such as a loud voice or person entering the room. This has been called “nip-lash” (nipple and whiplash) and can be painful.

2) Letting go

As they become even older, the distractibility increases. Just as adults will alternate between talking and eating at mealtimes, babies adopt the same patterns. They will:

  • Let go of the breast when distracted.
  • Check out what is happening.
  • Re-latch and resume feeding once their curiosity is satisfied or stop breastfeeding.

B) Dealing with distractibility

A distractible baby.

Distractibility is actually a good sign as the baby can see, hear, and respond to stimulation. Those babies who are not distractible should be seen by a health-care provider.

1) Stopping nip-lash

Nip-lash can be painful, especially once the baby has teeth. Mothers may need to choose a quieter breastfeeding place until the behaviour has settled. They can also use the same tools as are used for tugging, clamping, and biting to minimize this behaviour.

2) Worries about the baby's behaviour

Some mothers are worried the baby will not get enough milk because of frequent looking around or letting go of the breast. They will go somewhere quiet and away from others to breastfeed. However, there is no need to do so as distractibility is normal and rarely results in the baby not taking in enough milk.

Mothers may be concerned that distractibility combined with the normal shortening in the length of feeds with age are signs the baby is ready to wean when this is not the case.