When I see mothers breastfeeding in public, it always looks so effortless. She discreetly lifts up her shirt, pops the baby on, and continues with whatever she’s doing. When I had my daughter, “effortful” was a better descriptor; I was relying on breastfeeding pillows, “sandwiching” my boob, and nothing about the process was discreet or easy. Simply put, nursing a tiny newborn can be a different process. Looking for some assistance in these early weeks and months? These are five of the best breastfeeding positions for newborns. Once you and baby get comfortable with these, it’s only a matter of time before you’re the seasoned pro nursing on the go.
Marissa Reyna is a Certified Lactation Consultant and mind behind the lactation support Instagram page @marissathemilkmom, and offers a bit of wisdom and encouragement for new mothers who are navigating the early days of breastfeeding and possibly facing a steep learning curve. “Trust yourself and your baby,” says Reyna in an interview with Romper. “Sometimes it can take a while — or not — to get the hang of breastfeeding. Some babies will breastfeed within the first hour, and some take a little longer! Breastfeeding is the biological way to feed your baby, but that doesn't mean it always comes easy.”
Did you know there are five common breastfeeding positions? I certainly didn’t. This is a great thing; if one position doesn’t work for you, try the next. Alicia Lilly is a Registered Nurse, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, and creator of the Think Like a Mom program. “Everyone is different, and the perfect position will depend on the comfort of the mama and baby,” explains Lilly. “My best advice is to experiment with different positions to see what feels right for you both.”
Reyna is in wholehearted agreement, and says she focuses less on the specific position and more on a mom’s answers to these questions: “Are you comfortable? Is baby’s body, head, and feet supported well? Is baby removing milk? If the answers are yes, then you've got it!” In short, the “best” position is the one that works successfully for you and your newborn. And, if you’re still trying to figure out which position that is, the following five are great places to start.
The cradle hold is what you probably envision when you think of breastfeeding. In this hold, you cradle baby in the same arm of whichever breast they’ll be nursing from. Your arm will be a pillow for your baby’s head. “Cradle is the position that most parents gravitate to,” says Lilly. “It works well for most parents, but not all.” While this position works for many newborns, it often becomes the “go-to” position for older babies who have become good nursers.
This is a variation of the cradle position that often works even better for little newborns. Instead of holding baby in the same arm of the breast you’re feeding from, hold baby in the crook of your opposite arm and support the back of your baby’s head with your hand. Then, use your other hand to hold your breast as you guide baby to it. “Cross-cradle allows you to support your breast better in your baby’s mouth,” Lilly explains, which makes it a good option for little ones just learning to nurse.
When I was working on breastfeeding in the NICU with my little 5-pounder, the lactation consultants I met with routinely recommended I try the football hold because it’s great for smaller babies. Additionally, this is a great hold to try if you’re recovering from a C-section. Imagine a football player running for a touchdown with the ball tucked under his arm... that’s the general idea of the football hold. Lay a pillow in your lap and hold your baby beside you, facing your breast. Keep your elbow bent, supporting their back with your forearm and their head with your palm. Another benefit of this hold is the ability to really see how baby is latching.
You can probably guess the basics of this breastfeeding position just from its name. Get comfortable and lie back on your bed, chair, or sofa. Put baby belly to belly with you, their head at breast-level, and have baby nurse while lying against you. Not only is this position supremely comfortable, Lilly says, it “works great for parents that have a fast let-down — when milk shoots out of the nipple — to minimize choking for your baby.”
In the side-lying position, you and baby lie next to each other — who could’ve guessed? Lie down on your side and get comfortable, and place baby on their side facing you. You can use your bottom arm as a pillow for your head, or use it to cradle your baby, whichever feels better to you. Line up their mouth with your nipple, and gently guide them to it using either your baby-cradling bottom arm or your free top arm. “Side-lying can be a life saver for when you need to rest, but baby needs to cluster feed,” says Reyna. This is another position that also works well for moms recovering from a C-section.
Tips For Newborn Nursing
I delivered my first baby at a “baby-friendly” hospital that provided me with a lactation consultant before I was discharged. Even so, I felt wildly unprepared and found myself Googling breastfeeding questions at all hours of the night. Many times, I second-guessed if I was doing everything right and panicked about my ability to feed my child. If breastfeeding is an important goal for you, you can start setting yourself up for success before your baby even arrives by taking breastfeeding classes and reading up on it as much as possible. From mom to mom, simply understanding the science behind lactation and knowing what to expect can make everything less stressful once baby is here.
If possible, doing skin-to-skin immediately after delivery can start your breastfeeding relationship strong. “Researchers say a baby in skin-to-skin contact with the mother stimulates a specific part of the newborn’s brain. The baby is stimulated to move to mom’s breast, attach, and begin feeding,” writes OB-GYN JoLyn Seitz in an article for Sanford Health. This also jump starts your milk production while simultaneously helping baby maintain their temperature, stabilize their breathing and heart rate, and absorb the nutrients from your milk.
One major thing that new mamas need to keep in mind is that breastfeeding is a supply-and-demand relationship. “The important thing to remember is more milk removed, more milk made. Especially in the early days and weeks, removing milk and not trying to space feeds is crucial to establishing a healthy milk supply,” says Reyna. Those middle-of-the-night cluster feeding sessions might feel exhausting, but they’re vital in telling your body how much milk to produce for baby.
While breastfeeding is a special relationship between you and your baby, it is still important to surround yourself with a support system, if possible. Sometimes, an encouraging partner and a “been there, done that” mom friend can make all the difference in your experience. Other times, enlisting a lactation consultant or other breastfeeding professional can help you work out any issues and find your groove. Finally, be patient with yourself and know that it’s perfectly normal for things to take a bit of time. “Remember that breastfeeding can take up to six weeks to learn, so give yourself grace,” reminds Lilly.
General Breastfeeding Position No-Nos
Regardless of the specific breastfeeding position you prefer, there are a few things that should be avoided in any position. First, ensure that your baby doesn’t have to twist their head to feed. They should be turned facing your body, and their entire body “should be parallel to the floor with ears, shoulders, and hips aligned,” Lilly instructs. When you’re getting in position to nurse, remember the phrase “tummy to tummy.” This can cue you to turn baby inward toward the breast, so they don’t need to turn their head.
Reyna has another instruction for breastfeeding moms: unswaddle your baby. “They often nurse much better unrestricted,” she explains. “They use their hands to touch and massage the breast naturally. The more skin-to-skin contact, the better!” Though unrestricted, their bodies should still feel secure and supported. If your baby is squirming and fussing, Reyna suggests bracing their feet against your arm so they feel a bit more secure.
Checking A Newborn’s Latch
Regardless of the position you prefer, one thing is certain: a good latch is everything. Sore nipples? “Check their latch.” Baby still seems hungry and fussy after nursing? “Check their latch.” Clicking sounds, slow weight gain, struggling milk supply? “Check the latch!” It’s the advice you’ll get over and over... but what exactly does a proper latch look and feel like?
While nursing, the baby’s lips should look flanged, or curled outward. If their lips are curled inward, they’ll have a difficult time getting any milk. If you notice your baby’s lips aren’t flanged once they’re already on the breast, you may be able to correct the issue without unlatching completely. “You can improve your baby’s latch by pulling down on your baby’s chin to get the bottom lip out and roll the top lip up with your finger,” says Lilly.
Keep in mind that when it comes to getting the “perfect” latch, the appearance of the latch isn’t the full story. “So often I see, ‘the latch looks great!’ Yeah, but mom has nipple trauma and extreme pain. It's important for the latch to be comfortable,” says Reyna. If it feels like your baby is “gnawing, chewing, or scraping,” there is something awry. Often, the culprit behind nipple pain is a shallow latch; it’s breastfeeding, not nipple feeding, reminds Reyna. You can help your newborn get a deeper latch by sandwiching, or squeezing, your breast while they’re latching, or positioning them so their head is tilted back as they latch.
Latching issues can have consequences beyond nipple pain. A poor latch “also means your baby can’t drain your breast effectively, leading to poor weight gain, reducing your milk supply, and putting you at increased risk of blocked milk ducts and mastitis,” explains an article from Medela.
When you first begin breastfeeding, it can feel so overwhelming. Even once you’ve figured out the best position for you and your baby, it seems like there are a million other things to remember. Which breast did baby start on last time? Which one are they due for? Did they nurse long enough? Did they nurse too long? Is their latch OK? Do they have enough wet diapers? Dirty diapers?
Here’s the big thing I wish someone had told me when it seemed like breastfeeding was more trouble than it was worth: it gets easier. It gets so much easier. Just because it doesn’t come naturally at first doesn’t mean it never will. Eventually, you won’t be going through a lengthy mental checklist every single time you nurse. Like all aspects of parenting, you and your child will learn together as you go — and in the meantime, never be afraid to accept help!