Your baby is popping on and off the boob. Latching and unlatching. A little annoying and worrisome, huh?

“Popping on and off” is not to be confused with the newborn who is still learning to latch during the first few weeks of life, nor should it be confused with the non-latcher who isn’t really latching at all. In my book, if your baby can’t consistently get on the breast at every feeding and sustain at least five rapid, strong sucks before falling off, he isn’t able to latch.

Most of the time, we aren’t talking about “popping on and off” until baby is about two to three weeks old and is back to birth weight. There is no quick and easy answer to this phenomenon. The reason for popping on and off may be different at different feedings. There may even be more than one reason for popping on and off at the same nursing session.

To make this even more complicated, babies even as old as four months will pop off and take the same nipple back again repeatedly. This leaves you confused: “Do you want the boob or not!?”

Here are my top ten reasons why your baby may be “popping on and off.” Most of the time, I find it is one of the first three reasons:

1. Too Much Milk: When a baby is getting too much milk too quickly, he may back off the breast and pop off. If your baby is doing this, consider yourself lucky. Another way babies cope with too much milk is to clamp!

A baby popping on and off for this reason often seems to always be backing away from the milk as if trying to escape. Moms often describe the baby as starting with a deep latch, then slipping back to a shallower latch.

2. Not Enough Milk: Popping on and off due to not enough milk doesn’t necessarily mean you have a low milk supply. It just means that the baby isn’t getting as much milk as she would like at that moment.

A baby popping on and off for this reason tends to bury her head into the breast, then yank back with the nipple still in her mouth before popping off and crying. It reminds me of how kittens or puppies nurse. Sometimes they find they can make the milk come out faster if they pull and suck at the same time (ouch!).

When breast compressions are used in this scenario, the baby may settle in and nurse a little more since more milk is coming out.

Reasons there might not be enough milk:

  • Late in the day: Almost every mom reports frequent nursing and a frustrated baby in the evening. Your milk is lower in volume but higher in fat at night. Your baby may pop on and off and you might find that your baby is only satisfied if you switch from breast to breast.
  • Baby’s sucker doesn’t work very well: If a baby is sucking and popping off because he isn’t getting enough, but your breasts feel full, there may be something up with your baby’s ability to suck, like a tongue and/or lip tie. If a baby isn’t able to create the suction needed to drain the breast, he will pop on and off. I compare this to trying to drink out of a straw with a hole in it. You get can’t get enough suction to get the liquid out!
  • You pumped too close to baby’s next meal and now there isn’t enough: Baby may be frustrated because you stole the milk! As a general rule of thumb, if you are pumping for a bottle or working on boosting your milk supply (and you plan on breastfeeding at the subsequent feeding) you should pump within about fifteen minutes of finishing breastfeeding. Waiting any longer could interrupt your breasts’ refilling process.
  • This boob is slow! A baby who is popping on and off may be annoyed at the relatively slow flow of the breastmilk compared a flow he has experienced in the recent past. This could be a baby who is being fed a bottle too quickly or a baby whose mother had an oversupply that has since regulated.
  • Low supply: There certainly is the possibility that you aren’t making an adequate amount of milk to meet the baby’s needs.

3. Personal Problem, a.k.a. taking out personal issues on mom: If baby is popping on and off the breast and it is hurting or annoying you, make it stop. Even if your baby has the best latch, a few mean pop-ons and pop-offs can wreak havoc on nipples. So, don’t let your baby use your nipple as a tug toy. Figure out what his problem is, then let him latch back on if he’d like.

A baby with a personal problem seems physically uncomfortable while nursing. He may pull his knees to his belly or arch backwards. He may moan or cry while nursing. He may grunt and bear down.

Examples of some personal problems include a baby who:

Other reasons why your baby may be popping on and off:

The following reasons are a little harder to interpret. Oftentimes, they aren’t behaviors that are obvious or even consistent. They require you to be in tune with your baby, to know how to read her.

4. Distractibility: This includes any of a number of annoying behaviors babies can develop around twelve weeks old. As they become more aware of the environment around them, they start to find breastfeeding, well, boring. If dad speaks, brother shouts, the dog barks, the phone rings, the commercial flashes… baby must pop off and see what is going on. If you are dealing with distractibility, check out the Marathon Moms Course.

5. Playing Games: Many new moms tell me their baby is “just playing” at the breast when baby pops on and off, but truly baby is popping on and off for good reason. Babies younger than eight to 12 weeks can’t usually “play.” The developmental leap of learning to play typically comes around the eight-week mark, following two to three weeks of a stormy, clingy baby. (I am referring to the Wonder Weeks if you aren’t familiar. I highly recommend you get the app.) Once babies are able to interact socially through smiles, it often becomes a favorite pastime to take breaks from nursing to smile up at mom. Hey, before you had kids you used to actually set your fork down, chew your food, have dinner conversation, and take a sip of wine. Eating is as social as it is nutritive. Sure, it is a little annoying to have this nursing “conversation” eight to 12 times a day and it may make the feeding take a little longer, but damn is it cute.

6. Non-Nutritive Sucking: Sometimes, your baby wants to suck but doesn’t want milk. This is a tricky one. This baby is often misinterpreted as “playing” because he will latch, suck a few times, and pop off, but then if offered will latch again. Mom thinks, “Do you want to eat or not?!” If he doesn’t want to eat, why does he keep taking the nipple when offered? If he takes the nipple and sucks, why does he keep spitting it out? The baby who is popping on and off in this situation really wants to be on the breast, but gets annoyed whenever milk is coming at him. This is a frequent complaint of a mother with too much milk; baby is full but still has a need to non-nutritively suck, or pacify at the breast. Problem is, every time he tries to pacify, he gets more milk! This baby is conflicted: “Do I overeat myself and enjoy sucking time but maybe barf afterward, or do I quit and not get that ever-so-satisfying sucking time?”

7. Gluttonous Baby: Your baby really loves milk. A lot. And may be overeating. And barfing. That gluttonous milk monster! Mostly only a laundry problem, but a problem just the same.

8. Positioning: You moved the boob and not the baby. You may have latched perfectly, but if you are asking your baby to hold up the whole weight of your breast with his little mouth, expect a pop off.

9. Uncomfortable Latch (for baby): Perhaps your baby didn’t like the latch even though you did. As much as you have the right to undo and redo a latch because it hurts, your baby has the right to unlatch because it just doesn’t feel right to him. Even a newborn baby can realize his suck isn’t efficient enough and will unlatch and relatch to get a better flow of milk. Babies who are used to a faster flow will sometimes come on and off a few times until they get a let-down. Babies with a shallow latch will come off if their tongues are blocking the ductal openings of the nipple (this will leave your nipple looking like a new tube of lipstick). If your baby pops off after what you thought was a good latch, take a deep breath and try again. Appreciate that your baby has an intuition of what “feels right” in his mouth as much as you have a clear sense of what hurts and what doesn’t. The good news? If baby thinks the latch feels wrong in his mouth, it probably is! The latch probably would have hurt you, too! And if he can’t get it right and you can’t get it right? You may be dealing with the mother of all popping on and off problems:

10. Baby isn’t popping on and off; you are popping the baby off. 

We have established that there are many reasons why a baby may pop himself on and off the breast. But what about when you are choosing to unlatch the baby? Well, it’s your body and you always have the right to unlatch and re latch.