Ultrasound imaging of infant sucking dynamics during the establishment of lactation

J Hum Lact. 2013 May;29(2):205-13. doi: 10.1177/0890334412452933. Epub 2012 Sep 10.


Background: Infant sucking problems are frequently implicated in early weaning during breastfeeding, yet our understanding of early sucking dynamics is limited.

Objective: This study aimed to describe infant sucking patterns during breastfeeding at secretory activation and determine whether they changed by the time of established lactation.

Methods: Sucking patterns and milk intake of 15 breastfeeding infants were assessed on day 3.2 ± 0.8 and later at follow-up, 16.0 (11.3-22.8) days postpartum. Nipple diameters, tongue movement, nipple position, and suck rate during nutritive sucking (NS) and non-nutritive sucking (NNS) were measured from ultrasound scans of the intra-oral cavity during breastfeeding. Milk intake and LATCH scores were also recorded.

Results: As the tongue lowered during a suck cycle, the nipple increased in size (P < .001), milk flowed into the intra-oral space and the nipple moved closer to the hard-soft palate junction (P < .001). During NS, nipple diameters and the mid-tongue movement were greater than during NNS (P < .001). As the infant aged, the mid-tongue lowered further (P = .002), suck rates became faster (P < .001) and milk intake increased (P = .004), however, no differences were seen for LATCH scores (P = .34).

Conclusion: Differences in tongue movement between NS and NNS suggest that there is an altered sucking action when milk flow is absent. Similar sucking patterns at day 3 and during established lactation imply that infants have a mature sucking pattern in the early postpartum period.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Breast Feeding*
  • Eating
  • Energy Intake
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Mouth / diagnostic imaging*
  • Nipples / diagnostic imaging
  • Sucking Behavior*
  • Time Factors
  • Tongue
  • Ultrasonography