There were more than a few times when I was so exhausted from mothering all day that by the time I went to breastfeed my baby at night, I just plopped him on the bed with me and flung out a boob for him. It was convenient, and the side-lying position is a favorite of barely cognizant breastfeeding moms everywhere. But moms are now wondering if this is harmful for babies, and if breastfeeding while lying down could be irritating to their delicate ears or throat. Can breastfeeding in the side-lying position cause ear infections? It's a valid concern.
It is well documented that drinking juice or formula from a bottle while lying down can lead to an ear infection, as noted by the Journal of Pediatric and Child Health. The reason for this is that the sucking mechanism, combined with the posture of the child as well as the specific fluid contents of the bottle, can irritate the tender tissues of the ear, making them more susceptible to ear infections. According to the website for Dr. Sears, breast milk is less irritating than formula, and breastfed babies overall suffer from fewer allergies and are less prone to upper respiratory infections in general. Because of this, the website noted that breastfeeding in side-lying position does not lead to ear infections.
The way ear infections (acute otitis media) work, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery, is when "blockage of the eustachian tube during a cold, allergy, or upper respiratory infection, and the presence of bacteria or viruses lead to a build-up of pus and mucus behind the eardrum." It causes fever, pain, inflammation, and is more frequently seen in children than it is in adults. That's because everything in the ear is so much smaller in children, and when inflammation strikes, the tiny eustachian tubes in babies and children can seal up, preventing air and fluid from escaping.
Ear infections are scary things and shouldn't just be brushed off as a normal part of childhood. Trust me, I know this personally. I suffered chronic, debilitating middle ear infections as a child, and was left profoundly deaf due to the devastating effects that the constant fluid had on my ear drum, tympanic membrane, and the small bones in the middle of the ear called ossicles. I absolutely understand being worried about how your habits could cause harm to your child. And beyond the possible consequences of ear infections, they're just painful, and make your baby miserable — making life so much harder for you.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, any irritation can speed up this process because it causes the inflammation to begin. The website noted that bottle feeding while lying down is definitely one of these factors. So is second hand smoking, and having allergies.
Thankfully, there have been multiple studies that have proven that breastfeeding while laying on your side is not a factor. One such study published by Unicentro in Brazil found that "the practices of mothers during breastfeeding and infant’s position are not related to infection of the upper airways and otitis media." As far as risks go, Dr. Craig Brown of The Doctor Will See You Know takes it one step further, noting on the website that "from the point of view of keeping ears healthy and avoiding otitis media and other infections, breastfeeding is best for infants."
That's a huge weight off the shoulders of moms who've found a good latch in this position or moms who just want to lie down already. Because oh man, being a mom is hard, and you should be able to take a rest even while breastfeeding.