Experienced breastfeeding mothers often highlight doing night feedings in the side-lying position (nursing laying down) as one of the great benefits of breastfeeding. And it can be… no doubt. But new mothers sometimes find this position challenging in the early days and can start to despair that the promised sleep will never come.
Tips for Nursing Lying Down
The side-lying position may come easy for some, but for many, it is helpful if the baby is already mostly self-latching. With my first daughter, I wasn't able to consistently nurse lying down until about 4 months, while my second daughter and I could do it in a matter of weeks. If the baby can latch on in cradle position, you can probably give side-lying a try. If you still need the extra head control of the cross-cradle or football holds, it may be too soon (see my article on nursing positions, in related links at the end of this article).
For a newborn, it may be helpful to support the baby behind the back with a rolled receiving blanket, pillow, or other type of bolster, to help them stay on their side. It can also sometimes be helpful to start out in the cradle position and then lay down, letting the baby's body gently shift from your body to the bed. The baby's head may need to be supported on your arm, which can usually be taken away (under your head is a comfortable spot) once the latch is solid and the baby is nursing well.
Switching Sides While Side-Lying
In the beginning, it may be necessary to flip over and move the baby from one side to the other when switching sides while lying down. Because it is common for baby and mother to fall asleep while nursing, when the baby wakes again to nurse, the convenient bottom breast is the one that is already empty from the last feeding, and you need to remember to turn over and resettle the baby before starting again. This can sometimes be annoying when the baby is hungry and you are half-awake.
Eventually, when milk supply settles in and the breasts settle into a post-engorgement more stable size, you will most likely be able to figure out how to tilt over and nurse from the top breast (the baby will be more on his back than his side). The bottom breast should be well-emptied when nursing from the top breast so that the bottom breast is not compressed, leading to plugged ducts.
When the baby is very young, especially for a first-time mother, there may be some anxiety about leaning over the baby to nurse. Trust your instincts and don't do anything you feel is unsafe. As the latch becomes more stable and the baby becomes physically larger and more "substantial" this may become less worrisome. (See my article on Co-Sleeping Safety in related links below.)
At the beginning, I used a co-sleeper attached to the bed to provide a safe barrier when the baby was on the side by the edge of the bed. It is really important in the early weeks to be switching sides and emptying both breasts fairly alternately, in order to ensure a healthy milk supply. Once milk supply stabilizes after 8-12 weeks or so, it may be possible to be more flexible. I tended to nurse more heavily on the top breast when facing the center of the bed *before* bedtime and at naptime, leaving the bottom breast for nursing when lying down at night. Then I nursed on the top breast right after waking in the morning.
The time with each of my daughters when I was co-sleeping and nursing side-lying through the night was definitely the best sleep I got until my babies finally slept through the night. If nursing lying down isn't working, don't despair. Take a break for a few nights and then try again.
Here's the Co-Sleeper I used next to the bed when nursing at night: