Some things in life come easily, like breathing. Others require a little work, like learning to ride a bicycle. Still others require the development of superhuman powers, or at least a few extra arms.
Nursing a newborn can feel like that sometimes, that you need a few extra arms. Newborns can feel very…floppy. It’s not their fault – they’ve been floating in water for 9 months and suddenly they’re not. You know how when you’re in water you seem to weigh less and your movements are slowed? Well, babies are probably very graceful and athletic in the womb, and now that they’re earthside they accidentally smack themselves in the face (seriously. Imagine what that movement would look like underwater and you’ll know why they get so mad about it) and have trouble holding their huge heads up. They just need a little extra help (and sometimes, you do too!).
Here are a few ways to make those early nursing sessions a little more doable:
- Laid-back nursing: Get in a comfy, reclined or semi-reclined position. You can be laying in bed or on the couch, supported with pillows…whatever is comfortable for you. There are no rules here. Well, the rules are 1. Find a comfortable position and 2. Your top half should be somewhat elevated. Now you lay your baby on you, tummy to tummy. Any position is fine, as long as you’re both comfortable. Baby’s head should be somewhere near your breast. And then…you guys figure it out. You can help baby or not, you can position your breasts or not. (Some women’s breasts seem to be a bit more…susceptible to gravity. If this applies to you, you know what I mean.) The beauty of this arrangement is that babies have these incredible feeding reflexes that are activated in this position. (If you’re skeptical, Google “newborn crawl” and watch some amazing videos.)
- The “cross-cradle” hold: Let’s say you are wanting your baby to latch onto the left breast. In this hold, you will have your right hand under baby’s head. It works best for me if the base of their head, right where it goes from neck to head, is in that webby area between your thumb and index finger; since baby is lying sideways, the weight of their head is then resting on your fingers and part of your palm while the rest of your palm (and that webby part) support the neck. Your baby is sideways, tummy to tummy with you, perhaps supported with a pillow. Your left hand can then make a “sandwich” of your left breast. Often breasts are engorged in the early days so positioning the breast with your hand looking like a C or a U (the way you hold a sandwich) can help make it more manageable for a tiny newborn mouth. This shows it so much better than an explanation:
- Get some extra hands, literally: if you do any researching or reading about breastfeeding you will read about “support” or “partner support.” Sometimes this means that mom has someone she can talk to when is frustrated with a breastfeeding issue, someone who will be sympathetic but still supportive of her breastfeeding goals and encourage her to keep up the good work. Other times it literally means mom needs some hands-on help. With both my babies it has taken (I’m not exaggerating!) 3 or 4 hands to get them latched on at the beginning. I tend to use the cross-cradle hold, and as you can see above both hands are occupied. My son needed his lower lip flipped out every time we nursed because he tended to suck it in, and my daughter needed some gentle jaw massaging (her jaw got a bit jammed during her exit journey, which is normal, and was gently adjusted by a wonderful chiropractor who recommended lightly rubbing her jaw while she nursed for a few days to get rid of any residual tightness). You know who performed these extra-hand duties? Daddy. He was on board with breastfeeding, not in a “Well, it’s your choice” kind of way but in an “I will do whatever I can to help you make this work” kind of way. This is why it is so important for dad to be involved in learning about breastfeeding – why it’s important and how he can help – before baby comes. When the babies and I encountered hurdles, my husband was right there with the extra hands I needed.
Some day, before you know it, your baby will be able to hold his head up on his own and you will be able to nurse one-handed. Until then, having a few positioning tricks like laid-back breastfeeding and the cross-cradle hold can make a world of difference in your comfort and confidence. And if you need a little extra help, don’t be afraid to ask.
Note: I am not a breastfeeding professional; I am simply a mama who has breastfed a couple of babies. Take my advice with a grain of salt. If you have any questions or concerns about breastfeeding I encourage you to contact a local La Leche League leader and/or a qualified lactation consultant.