Although it is a natural activity, breastfeeding is also a skill that takes time to learn. It tends to get easier with practice, as both a woman and baby master the breastfeeding strategies that work for them.
The best breastfeeding positions enable a baby to latch on to the breast well and comfortably, do not strain the muscles, and reduce the risk of nipple injuries and pain.
The best breastfeeding position can also change as a baby grows and a woman gains confidence. No single position works for everyone.
Instead, try out a variety of positions to find the ones that work well in different situations.
While not every woman will find the same positions comfortable or effective, some of the best breastfeeding positions include:
1. Cradle hold
The cradle hold is the classic breastfeeding position. In this position, the baby feeds with its stomach against the woman’s body.
To do the cradle hold:
- Hold the baby with its stomach against your body.
- Support the baby with the arm that is on the same side as the breast from which the baby is nursing.
- Keep the baby’s head in line with the rest of their body to avoid straining their neck.
- Try using a nursing pillow or an armrest to support your elbow to make this hold more comfortable.
However, some women find this position difficult to master with a newborn. Also, as babies grow, they may become too large to support in this position.
2. Cross-cradle hold
The cross-cradle is usually the best latch for newborns. The hold is similar to the cradle hold, but the woman supports the baby with the arm opposite to the breast the baby is feeding from.
To breastfeed in the cross-cradle position:
- Hold the baby flush against your stomach, with their back and neck aligned.
- Reach across the baby’s back and support their head with your hand, allowing their bottom to rest in the crook of your arm.
This hold can be tricky to master at first but allows the woman more control over the baby’s latch. This position can be helpful for babies who struggle with getting a deep latch.
3. Reclining or lying back
This position is sometimes called biological nursing because it stimulates a baby’s instinctive feeding reflexes, and allows the woman to feed from a comfortable, supported position.
It may require some shifts in positioning, but the reclining position can also be very comfortable for women struggling with muscle pain or recovering from surgery or childbirth.
To master this approach to breastfeeding:
- Find a comfortable reclining position that supports your head and neck. Imagine watching TV or reading a book while reclining. A reclining chair can help.
- Position the baby stomach down on your chest, with their head at breast level.
- Ensure that nothing is covering the baby’s nose and that their neck is not bent.
- The baby may find the breast by themselves, but feel free to help as much as necessary.
Some women put the baby in an upright position, with toes pointing down. Other women find it more comfortable with the baby slightly reclining against their bent arm.
Experiment with different options to find one that works.
4. Sitting baby
When a baby is old enough to support their head, they can breastfeed in a sitting position. This position works well for breastfeeding on the go. Babies who squirm when they feel restrained may also like this position.
To feed a baby in an upright position:
- Sit in an upright position and support the baby to sit. Younger babies can lean against your slightly bent arm for more support. Older babies may do better sitting up fully, with their legs wrapped around either side of your abdomen.
- Support the baby’s back and neck until they can sit without assistance.
- Ensure the baby’s neck and back are straight and aligned.
- Make sure that nothing is covering the baby’s nose.
Side-lying is an ideal breastfeeding position for women recovering from surgery, and for exhausted women feeding at night. Women who co-sleep with the baby tend to use this position.
Some women find that it is difficult to get into the right position at first. Very small newborns may struggle with side-lying.
To breastfeed in a side-lying position:
- Lie on one side, facing the baby.
- Place the baby so its nose is close to your nipple.
- Hold the baby close to your side, and support its back with your lower arm or a rolled up blanket or towel.
Some babies find it easier to breastfeed from the top breast, while others can more easily reach the breast that is closest to the bed.
Women who try this position should note that while co-sleeping is popular, most organizations do not recommend it. This is especially true for newborns who have a high risk of suffocation and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
The safest way to breastfeed in a side-lying position is to remove all pillows and blankets near the baby. Avoid falling asleep before returning the baby to its crib.
6. Clutch hold
The clutch hold is ideal for women recovering from abdominal surgery or dealing with pain after childbirth. It is also an excellent option for women who want to nurse two babies simultaneously.
Many women find this helps babies get a deeper latch, and that it reduces frustration associated with a forceful let-down reflex.
This hold is sometimes called the football hold because a woman holds the baby like a football.
To use the clutch hold position:
- Place a pillow on one side of your body or both sides if breastfeeding two babies. The pillow will support the baby’s body.
- Hold the baby face-upwards in your arm with their head near to your breast.
- Align the baby’s head, neck and back support them with your arm and hand.
- Cradle the baby close to your side with their legs and feet tucked under your arm.
Positioning is just one aspect of comfortable breastfeeding. These other strategies can make breastfeeding more comfortable and effective:
- Using pillows or rolled blankets for extra support. This tactic can be especially helpful if holding the baby causes muscle strain. For example, putting a pillow under the elbow that supports the baby can help reduce shoulder and neck tension.
- Creating a comfortable breastfeeding area. Stocking one area of the house or room with snacks, water, a nursing pillow, a blanket, burping supplies, a book or magazine, and other necessities can help women manage long breastfeeding sessions.
- Relaxing the neck and shoulders. Some people tense their neck and shoulder muscles to support the weight of the baby. Try actively relaxing these muscles or use a pillow for support.
- Supporting the breast. Depending on the breast’s size or position, it may cover much of the baby’s face. Supporting the weight of the breast with a free hand can make the position more comfortable and keep the baby’s nose uncovered.
- Pumping after each breastfeeding session. To increase supply and build up a store of breast milk, a woman can pump after each breastfeeding session. This helps to empty the breasts. Some women prefer to save time by pumping on one breast while breastfeeding on the other.
The right position for breastfeeding can change with time as the woman and baby develop a routine and relationship. Be open to experimenting with different positions. While some positions may feel awkward at first, practice can make them easier and more comfortable.
Women who experience trouble with breastfeeding should seek help early. It is possible to resolve most breastfeeding problems, but waiting too long can be challenging and trigger frustration in the woman and baby.
For help, a breastfeeding woman can attend a La Leche League meeting, or speak to a lactation consultant or a doctor.