If you want to get the best sleep while breastfeeding, I recommend cosleeping. And if you want to get the best sleep while cosleeping and breastfeeding, I highly recommend learning side-lying nursing early on!
It can take a little time to get the hang of it, but once you've got it down, you can pull your baby in for a feed and then both of you can drowse, safely, back to sleep.
First, let's imagine you're in the cosleeping position I recommended in my cosleeping tutorial, or something like it. To recap, the most important bits are (you can find more details in the link):
- lying on your side (hence the side-lying nursing — get it?)
- making sure pillows and blankets are safely out of the way of your little one
- having your boobs nice and accessible (I prefer a shelf-bra cami so there's no fiddling in the dark)
All right, now you lay your baby down next to you in the bed, and here is how you position the baby:
- with her mouth roughly in line with your breasts
- on her side or back — if she's on her side, she'll be in line to eat. If she's on her back, she'll just turn her head to nurse; this is easier with older nurslings who have bigger heads and more neck control. Regardless of how you position your little one to feed, she'll probably roll onto her back after the feeding; this is completely normal and a testament to the safety of cosleeping while breastfeeding.
- with the baby's legs wherever they want to go — you'll see in the picture that I prefer sleeping with my knees pulled up to round my back, which means that only the smallest newborn has room to put his legs straight down. That's OK, though, because your baby can fold his legs as well, angle his body and legs off to the side, or stack them on top of your thighs like a cozy ottoman, whatever's comfortable for both of you. Experiment to see what works.
So here's how it looks:
This is with a toddler, of course, but the principle's the same no matter the age of the baby. I was going to try to take some pictures with a doll to simulate a newborn, but we couldn't find any of the dolls! They get around; what can I say?
Here's the view from the child's back.
In both of these pictures, I'm nursing with what we'll call the "bottom" breast, as in, the one closest to the mattress. This is usually the easiest breast for mamas to learn side-lying nursing on.
So now you've seen it done, here are the steps to getting the baby latched on to the bottom breast while you're both lying down:
- Lean back slightly until your nipple is at a comfortable angle to fit into your infant's mouth. I find having a pillow tucked well down behind my back and bolstered against something sturdy (a bedside table) helps to support me as I lean. How far back you'll need to lean depends on your own particular breast (size, fullness, etc.). Just use your observations and common sense to gauge it: Is your nipple angling down into the mattress? Then you need to lean back farther. Is your nipple pointing more toward the ceiling? Then you need to turn more fully onto your side. You want your nipple at the height where it will be comfortable for your baby to latch on.
- Now pull your baby in close to you. Really close. There are many ways to do this. For very light babies, you can snake an arm underneath and gently pull the baby over. For older and heavier babies and toddlers, I prefer the method of yanking the arm and leg closest to me (well, he's never complained!). Some mamas find it easier to place the baby onto a thin receiving blanket or prefold diaper and pull on the cloth instead. Once your baby's kind of close, really snug her in tightly, by using your upper arm to push on her bum. Particularly for very young babies, her lower body should be touching your tummy. The shape you make together, your torso and her body, will now feel something like a V.
- If your baby needs support to stay on his side, you can tuck a rolled-up receiving blanket or prefold behind his back. Don't place it behind his neck or head, because he needs freedom to pull away from your breast when he's done eating or needs a break to breathe. You can also use your bottom arm to hold him closer, letting his head rest on your upper arm.
- If the baby's too young to latch on immediately, help her latch. Try teasing her upper lip with the nipple. You might need to support that breast with your upper hand (as in, the one not pinned under your body) and guide it more fully into your baby's mouth, doing the C-hold as necessary to match your infant's mouth shape. If the baby's latched on and something doesn't feel right, wet one of your fingers and slide it beside your baby's mouth to break the suction, and then try again. Don't get discouraged if it takes awhile to learn, because it does get easier and it is so worth it in the end.
- Older babies will just get what's going on (hey, nummies are nearby!), so not as much persuading is necessary.
You can switch sides when your baby needs to switch breasts, or…you can learn to nurse from both breasts while lying on the same side. More sleep = win!
To switch breasts without switching sides, you need to learn to nurse from the "top" breast, as in, the one closest to the ceiling. Since nursing from the bottom meant leaning back, nursing from the top means leaning forward a bit. How far forward you lean depends, again, on your breast size and shape. I have large breasts and find I'm almost perfectly perpendicular when nursing from the top rather than pitched very far forward. Just do what works for you, again using your own observations to note when your nipple is in line with your baby's mouth.
As you're pitching yourself forward, you might find you need to use your top leg to act as a sort of kickstand, angling it slightly off your bottom leg onto the mattress.
I find with the top breast even more so than the bottom that the baby is often more comfortable on his back, his head slightly turned toward you (as in the photo to the right). Experiment with putting your baby on his back or side to see what works.
If you want to switch sides for your own comfort while sleeping, here are a couple tips:
- Sit up and hover over your baby while pulling her to the other side. Again, this is where a thin receiving blanket or prefold under your baby can help you in sliding her over.
- While lying down, pick your child up onto your chest, and then roll together with him. You might need to scootch one direction or the other afterward, too, depending on how close you are to the edge.
In the comments on my cosleeping post, Kristin of Intrepid Murmurings, a mama of (adorable) twins mentioned one more way to nurse lying down that worked for multiples and works for singletons as well: Lie or recline on your back, and have your baby or babies sleep on top of you, with pillows to support your position as necessary. I found having Mikko sleep on my chest was especially good when his nose was stuffed up, either in those early days of post-birth congestion or in later times of having a cold.
As your nursling gets older and more mobile, she'll find her own ways to nurse lying down. This is one of Mikko's favorites:
Half sitting, and leaning in, and when I'm on my back, he has free access to switch breasts to his toddler's heart's content. I'll often wake up to find him just so.
If side-lying nursing is not working for you now, it's always worth trying again in the future. As you and your baby become more comfortable with latching in general, and your baby gains some head and neck control, you might find side-lying nursing possible in a few weeks or months.
So stick with it, because eventually nursing lying down will become so easy for both of you that you can literally sleep right through it!
More resources and pictures for nursing lying down:
- Ameda: "Breastfeeding Basics: Breastfeeding Lying Down" — straightforward advice
- Mother-2-Mother.com: "Nursing Lying Down" — helpful pictures of real-life breastfeeding babies
- La Leche League International: "How do I position my baby to breastfeed?" — general latching help along with many breastfeeding positions, including lying down
- Bella Online: "Nursing in the Side-Lying Position" — including tips on how to nurse from the top breast
- kellymom.com: "Lactation Yoga" — on positioning for nursing from the top breast, and it gives it an amusing name, so that's always good; now you can feel like you're working out while you sleep!
In sharing how we do things in our family, I am not trying to suggest
bed sharing is right for you. Please consider the safety issues,
and take all precautions when considering where your children will
sleep. Most government agencies and health professionals warn against
bed sharing with infants, particularly under six months.
You need to consider this decision carefully and make a choice you can
own. Don't rest your children's well-being on any one blog post, even mine.