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Nursing Pillows – Yea or Nay?

Nursing pillows

Almost every mother in the US gets a nursing pillow for their baby shower. Consequently, mothers everywhere feel like it is a must have item before they deliver. What if I told you that a majority of mothers are better off not using one at all?  Yes, there are many products that mothers will find helpful, but these pillows are not custom made and it can be challenging to find one that really enhances the breastfeeding process instead of getting in the way of it.

Some taller mothers may find these pillows not giving their baby enough support, making them lean over their baby to achieve any latch. This can cause an array of problems such as back pain, nipple pain, weight gain issues and more. Similarly, petite mothers might find the need to elevate their breast to align with their baby’s face. As a result their baby can have difficulties staying latched and can cause nipple pain to get worse.

In order to achieve optimal attachment to the breast, the mother and the baby need to fit with each other like “two pieces of a puzzle”.  Mothers who use nursing pillows have to fit three puzzle pieces together and this can be more complicated if that piece, (the pillow in this case) doesn’t fit just right. Anytime you’re in the position in which gravity is pulling your baby away from you, you’re more at risk of shallow attachment.

Personal Story

I want to share a personal story with you. A nursing pillow was one of the gifts I received from my baby shower, and I’ve used one with all my three children. What a wonderful gift that was in my mind. I thought everyone breastfed with a nursing pillow, and that was how breastfeeding should look like. My nursing pillow accompanied me almost everywhere I went. But, I found myself leaning over to latch my baby and my back pain was getting worse day by day.

Breastfeeding didn’t come easy to me; I went through major nipple pain issues. The pain was excruciating, my nipples were cracked and bleeding. I was engorged for weeks and I soon realized how easy it would be to just give up. Nonetheless, I persevered because breastfeeding was extremely important to me, and the pain finally went away.

I swear I feel like all the struggles I endured happened, so I could better understand breastfeeding and better serve my clients. Mastitis, plugged ducts, vasospasms and carrying for infants suffering with colic became a part of my breastfeeding journey. I was convinced my supply was low which lead me to unnecessary supplementation.

Introduction to laid back breastfeeding

Finally, I ventured out and met a wonderful group of women in one of our local breastfeeding groups. As I was nursing hunched over my fussy baby, one phenomenal Lactation Consultant, who later became my mentor and great friend, Susie Niedzielski introduced me to laid back nursing. She asked me to put the pillows away, lean back and bring my baby on top of me. And… what just happened? I asked myself. Instantly my daughter stopped tossing and turning and settled into me like a piece of a puzzle.

That day I became her pillow, I no longer needed a pillow for her, I just needed a regular pillow for my arm support. We were finally both able to relax and enjoy breastfeeding. It felt like magic, such a small change completely changed my breastfeeding relationship.

The more I learned about laid back nursing the more fascinated I became with the science behind it. We used to think that babies were quite hopeless and we had to do the latching for them, but we now understand that infants are born with the ability to search for the breast and latch unassisted, just like other mammals do.

The benefits of laid-back breastfeeding/biological nurturing were studied and popularized by Dr. Suzanne Colson  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18243594/. She described how primitive newborn reflexes (PNRs) affect breastfeeding behavior when a infant is placed on top of a mother’s chest. Other breastfeeding experts deepened our understanding on this subject. Pediatrician Christina Smillie observed that “A baby’s instinct is to look for and latch on to the breast, involving a sequence of behaviors, where one behavior leads to the next.” Nancy Mohrbacher and Dr. Theresa Nesbitt created an educational program called Natural Breastfeeding that is available to mothers who would like to learn more about benefits of natural breastfeeding positions. https://www.naturalbreastfeeding.com/

How is laid-back breastfeeding different from other positions?

  • Gravity helps bring your baby closer to you, the longer you nurse the deeper the baby settles into your breast
  • The infant can use their reflexes and instincts to optimize the latch and adjust it as needed.
  • The infant can control the milk flow better. The milk flow is less likely to be overwhelming for your baby
  • After vaginal birth, nursing in a laid back position can take pressure of your perineum that can elevate discomfort.  
  • Both you and your baby’s body will be well supported, encouraging relaxation. Think about it, would it be easy to eat at a table that keeps on wobbling?
  • Good positioning, deeper latch and relaxation is the key to a more successful enjoyable breastfeeding

    relationship.

How can nursing pillows get in the way of breastfeeding?

8 reasons why you might want to say goodbye to your nursing pillow

  • A nursing pillow takes up space on your body that your baby needs to feel stable.
  • your baby has less control over latching, and can’t use their instincts and reflexes efficiently to position themselves well, open their mouth wide and latch deeply.
  • If your milk flow is rapid, the baby will attempt to slide off the nipple in order to control the flow easier.
  • If your milk flow is rapid, your baby might cough and splatter.
  • Sub-optimal latching can cause a shallow latch and nipple pain
  • Sub-optimal latching can cause slow weight gain and breast refusal.
  • You have to work against gravity to support your baby’s weight, this can lead to back pain, neck pain and breastfeeding fatigue.
  • You might have to worry about bringing a bulky pillow with you when visiting family or traveling.

What if you’re using a nursing pillow and it seems to have been working for you? That’s great. You don’t have to try to fix what’s not broken. Humans learn to adapt and nurse in all kinds of different positions. As long as you’re both enjoying breastfeeding, use any pillows or tools you found helpful. No tools and positions are fundamentally evil. Everyone is different so listening to your own body and looking for positions of ease can be the most beneficial and helpful thing to do.

What if I’m large breasted, tried this, and it didn’t work?

It can definitely be challenging to master this position if you have large breasts. You may need to lean back further or get more assistance to make this position work for you. I do recommend watching this helpful video from Nancy Mohrbacher. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=584nv1oNxvw

If you’re still trying to find the most comfortable position for you and your baby, try laid back positioning next time you breastfeed. You can begin with resting your baby calmly on your chest between your breast. Observe their body instinctively moving towards your breast, talk to them and keep them encouraged. Let their head fall into your arm and allow them to self-attach. If you find yourself struggling, reach out to an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant near you or contact me for additional support.

“You’re not going to master the rest of your life in one day. Just relax. Master the day. Then just keep doing that every day.”

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