Timing is everything in life: the perfect job, the perfect romance, or even just a free taxi at rush hour—so much depends on being in the right place at the right time. Breastfeeding is no different: get the timing right, and success comes easy. Get it wrong and you may struggle or ultimately give up. It all hinges on the very first time the baby puts her mouth to mom’s nipple and begins to feed. Done at the right time, in the right way, that first latch can put you on the fast track to breastfeeding success.

Here’s the thing that most moms (and even most “experts”) don’t always get. Babies are born with the instinctive drive to locate the breast immediately following birth. They have certain involuntary reflexes that encourage them to crawl—yes, crawl—toward their mothers’ breast. Within minutes of being born, babies are stretching and elongating their tongue muscles, rooting their heads and smacking their lips. All of these motions help babies physically ready themselves for the most important job of their little lives: getting fed.

But while many newborn reflexes, like the Moro reflex, disappear over a period of weeks or months, the initial feeding reflexes vanish within two hours of birth.  The feeding instinct disappears quickly because, in ideal conditions, babies eat right away.  They’re born ready to feed, and it takes them about two months to reach the same levels of alertness of that first hour.  In these crucial first few minutes, your baby has the best chance of latching onto your breast.

A good first latch also maximizes milk production.  Infants who succeed in latching within the first two hours after birth consume significantly more milk early on than those who don’t latch properly.  An early latch kicks the mother’s milk supply into high gear, which is important since insufficient supply is the No. 1 reason mothers stop breastfeeding.

The science behind the first latch is truly amazing.  Milk-making, or alveolar, cells all contain receptor sites, with host hormones that tell these cells either to make colostrum or to make milk. In pregnancy, the hormone progesterone directs the alveolar cells to make colostrum, which every mom produces and stores.  At birth, however, progesterone levels drop off, leaving the receptor sites open and empty.  If the baby stimulates the mother’s nipples and initiates her first feed in this period, right after birth, the milk-making hormone prolactin begins to flood the empty receptor sites, and the mother starts producing milk.  The more stimulation the nipples receive, the more milk the mother produces.

And if the nipples don’t get stimulated?  Morbid as it sounds, the mother’s body receives the message that the baby didn’t survive birth.  Receptor sites begin to shut down, and alveolar cells begin to go dormant, which makes milk production more difficult.  So if you’re separated from your baby at birth, you should immediately stimulate your nipples either by hand or with a breast pump.

But if this isn’t possible, you can still get your baby the milk she needs.  All humans, male and female, possess natural stores of prolactin.  With professional assistance, and a lot of persistence, you can train even a limited number of cells to produce milk.  Of course, it’s always easier when things happen how and when they should, but I know from personal experience that reality can be quite different from ideal.

When my first child was born, the nurses immediately whisked her off to weigh and measure her.  By the time we were reunited, she was tired and uninterested in breastfeeding.  Though I forced my nipple into her mouth, we didn’t get very far.  It was only a few days later—and thanks to the life-altering intervention of a lactation counselor I visited on my first morning home from the hospital—that my daughter latched correctly.  I went on to breastfeed her exclusively for the first year and beyond, but I could’ve saved us both a lot of torment if I’d initiated skin-to-skin contact right away and naturally allowed her to find her way to my breast.  I learned from this experience; with my subsequent three children, breastfeeding was initiated right away, and we never had a single breastfeeding problem.  With the right timing, you can skip out on the difficulties and move right to the bliss.