What to Know About Your Baby's Rooting Reflex

When your baby finally leaves the womb and reaches the outside world, it's a lot to take in—for both of you. Thankfully, newborns are equipped with a few inherent skills to help them navigate their new surroundings. Many of these skills, or reflexes, are developed during pregnancy and are ready to be used right after birth. 

One of these instincts is known as the rooting reflex, which helps your baby with an incredibly important task: finding their food. Here, we'll cover more about the rooting reflex, when it develops, how it goes hand in hand with the sucking reflex, and when it's best to contact a healthcare provider. 

What Is the Rooting Reflex?

A baby's rooting reflex exists in order to help them find and latch onto a nipple or bottle during feeding in the early weeks of life. Like other reflexes, this behavior is involuntary, and is part of your baby's development.

"The rooting reflex refers to an instinct for infants to turn their heads and open their mouths in response to touch or stimulation on or near their cheek or mouth," explains Dawnita Wicks, R.N., I.B.C.L.C., lactation consultant at Emulait, adding that this instinct is a survival mechanism for newborns.

Your baby's rooting reflex will occur naturally, but you can also activate it yourself. "When you stroke a hungry baby's cheek or mouth, they may turn their head toward your hand and open their mouth, looking for the breast or a bottle," explains Rebecca Agi, M.S., I.B.C.L.C. Los Angeles-based lactation consultant, founder of Best Milk LA, and member of the Parents Expert Review Board. Agi adds that rooting is essential for both survival and growth, as it helps babies find the breast or bottle and initiate feeding.

When Does the Rooting Reflex Develop?

Because the rooting reflex is a primitive response, it develops at birth. Keep in mind that it doesn't matter whether you breastfeed or bottle feed—the rooting reflex will be present in your little one either way. 

"The reflex is triggered by the touch or stimulation of the cheek or mouth, regardless of whether [your baby's food] comes from the breast or a bottle," says Wicks. "The rooting reflex helps guide the newborn toward the source of milk."

How Long Does the Rooting Reflex Last in Babies?

Rooting is a newborn reflex that begins at birth and lasts around three to four months. As Wicks explains, during the early months of your baby's life, their feeding is supported by this ingrained reflex, which helps to ensure that latching is established and milk supply is secured. During this time, your newborn's neurological and muscular systems are continuing to mature.

By the third or fourth month, those initial reflexes will dissipate and your infant will use what Wicks calls "will and skill" to manage feeding. Babies learn that they do not need to search for a nipple anymore and that they will be fed regularly. They may even begin to turn away from a breast or bottle if they are not hungry. 

Other Cues Your Baby Is Hungry

Besides noticing the rooting reflex, there are other signs to watch out for that could indicate that your baby might be hungry:

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