Most childbirth education classes these days include at least a cursory lesson on breastfeeding and tend to focus on giving parents a doll to learn and practice breastfeeding positions. This is important information to have, but until you have the baby in your hands, the salient details of what, when and why can tend to lack a certain immediacy.
So here's a quick review of the most common nursing positions and some tips for each:
Cradle is the classic image of a nursing mother. The baby's head is in the crook of the elbow with the body nestled in along the arm. While it feels natural, this is not usually the best position for the first days of nursing. Once the baby has developed a natural instinct for a correct deep latch, cradle will likely become your most common nursing position, but cross-cradle or football positions are often better choices for newborns.
Cross-cradle is an excellent position for the first days and hours of nursing. In cross-cradle, the baby's bottom rests in the crook of the elbow with the feet extending out the side of the body. The back of the baby's head rests in the palm of the hand. The great benefit of this position is the ability to control the baby's head to help achieve a good positioning on the breast, leaving the other hand free to support the breast if needed. Support of a pillow or breastfeeding aid may be helpful but is not always needed.
Football position is also a good choice for the early days of nursing, particularly for mothers who have undergone C-section delivery who can not place the baby over the abdomen as in cross-cradle. Football hold places the baby along side the mother, usually supported by pillows or other breastfeeding support. The mother's arm snakes around the baby, and under the neck, supporting the back of the baby's head. Like cross-cradle, this position provides excellent ability to control the baby's head for positioning on the breast. This is also known as a good position for women with especially large breasts or during the engorgement phase. Football position can also be useful in the case of the sore nipples that often accompany the early days of nursing, as this hold places the baby's tongue in a different place on the nipple than cradle or cross-cradle.
Nursing while lying down is a great way to nurse at night. Once mastered, it generally allows the mother to fall back asleep or at least doze while nursing. The side-lying position can be tricky for a newborn, sometimes not really settling in until 2-4 months of age. Supporting the baby on a pillow to raise the mouth towards the breast can sometimes help. However, care should be taken not to allow the baby and mother to sleep with the baby not in a safe co-sleeping situation (such as on a soft pillow). For more details, see the related article on Co-Sleeping Safety linked below.
Understanding the basics and benefits of the different nursing positions can help to support the successful establishment of breastfeeding. It is not uncommon for one position or breastfeeding aid to work one day and then require a shift the next as mother and baby settle into the nursing relationship. So if a challenge arises, take a deep breath and try another position, a different pillow configuration (or take the supports away entirely), a different way of sitting, and try again. Keep calm and try a new approach until you find one that works.
In addition to pillows of different sizes or thicknesses, many mothers find Boppy Pillows or other breastfeeding supports helpful in the early days.
Boppy Pillow – If you get one of these, choose the "naked" pillow and a couple slipcovers for ease of washing. Various fabrics and colors are available.
Many mothers also like this nursing pillow:
My Brest Friend Wearable Nursing Pillow - Green Sunburst