Do you really need a nursing pillow?

We asked a lactation consultant and registered nurse to answer all your questions about using a nursing pillow to breastfeed your newborn.

In theory, all you need to breastfeed is, you know, a breast and a baby. But in practice, there are some extras that can make it easier and more comfortable. Some mamas swear by a particular brand of nursing pillow, while others don’t even bother with one. You may find that what works for one baby doesn’t suit another or that your needs change as your baby grows. Here’s what to keep in mind. 

Why would I need a nursing pillow?

In general, when you’re nursing while sitting, using a cradle, cross-cradle or football hold, a nursing pillow can be a great idea. When you consider how often you breastfeed, every day and night for months, it’s not surprising to hear that not having the proper support can lead to wrist and hand injuries, as well as shoulder and back pain. It’s totally worth taking the time to get the setup right. 

Can I just use a regular pillow for nursing?

You can use a regular pillow as long as it feels good for your body type and nursing position. “My first priority is that moms are comfortable,” says Tori Hamilton, a lactation consultant and registered nurse in Kincardine, Ontario. She recommends that you find a few places in your home that are comfortable for nursing, such as a corner spot on the couch and a glider in the baby’s room, and keep a few pillows there. “Get comfortable before you start a nursing session and then get your baby latched,” she says. 

How do I use a nursing pillow?

Whether you’re using a store-bought U-shaped nursing pillow that wraps around your waist or a pillow from your bed, during the first six to eight weeks, the nursing pillow is used to support your arm rather than hold your baby to prevent strain, says Hamilton. If you’re using the cross-cradle hold (which is pretty common, especially with newborns), your baby’s bum should be tucked into your left elbow if you’re feeding from the right breast, with a pillow under your arm and wrist to help support your arm, she says. “You want your baby to be tummy to tummy with you, with your baby’s head, neck and torso in a straight line, from your nipple to your baby’s nose,” she says. 

Ideally, your arm should always support your baby in the early weeks, says Hamilton. “Positioning can make a huge difference when it comes to the amount of milk transfer,” says Hamilton. Once your baby is latched, she suggests that you lean back into a comfortable position, keeping your baby’s body tight to yours. “The hand you use to support your breast can relax, unless breast compressions are needed, so that you’re free to take a drink, read or eat,” she says.

You may see some pictures on manufacturers’ websites or packaging that show your baby resting directly on the nursing pillow, but that isn’t necessarily a good idea, says Hamilton. “It would be easy for your baby to come out of alignment, which could reduce milk transfer and cause nipple pain due to a shallow latch,” she says. “Also, you shouldn’t apply pressure to an infant’s head. Instead, the head and neck should be supported below the ears.” 

However, Hamilton says that after the first couple of months, it’s fine to have your baby propped up by pillows while nursing, as long as they are lined up properly, stay tight to you and get the latch right. 

When can a nursing pillow be helpful?

Your body type definitely plays a role, and there are some situations where a firmer, thicker nursing pillow can be helpful. If you have a long torso, a thicker U-shaped pillow can help raise the arm that’s holding your baby higher so that you’re not hunching over. “Some of my clients like a nursing pillow that comes with an adjustable strap so that they can raise it to the right position on their bodies,” says Hamilton, adding that this can be helpful if you have larger breasts. If you’re breastfeeding twins, a nursing pillow designed for multiples can be a huge help to get everyone positioned right, often in the football hold.

Nursing pillows can be multipurpose, too: Some parents use them for baby’s tummy time (up until baby is able to roll over on their own), and they’re also handy when your wobbly babe is learning to sit up. Always put a nursing pillow on the floor for these activities, and be sure to supervise your baby. 

What are some nursing positions that don’t need a nursing pillow?

Of course, sitting up isn’t your only option for breastfeeding. Reclined nursing, sometimes called biological nurturing, means that you are leaning back in bed or in a reclined chair, with your baby lying, tummy down, on your chest. Gravity will provide most of the support, but you still have to use one hand to support your breast, as needed, and the other hand to support your baby’s thigh or bum. Also, you still need a pillow or two to support your head, shoulders and arms. 

Then there is the side-lying position, which, as the name implies, means that you are lying down on your side, with your baby lying flat on the mattress, close to your breast. Place a pillow under your head and another behind your back so that you can lean against it. A pillow between your knees is often more comfortable for your back, too. 

Both of these positions are useful if it hurts to sit up, for those who have had C-sections, perineal tears from delivery or headaches from epidurals. Your baby may like these positions, too, because they don’t put any pressure on their head or neck. If you have lots of milk or a forceful letdown, lying back or down can help slow the flow so that your baby isn’t spluttering and trying to keep up with swallowing. If your flow is low, these laid-back positions can help your baby get a deeper latch and reduce nipple pain so that you’re able to nurse longer and ensure that your baby gets as much milk as possible.  

Can a nursing pillow actually make breastfeeding harder?

If you’re putting your baby on the pillow and then trying to latch, it can lead to latch problems and sore nipples. Instead, remember that your baby needs to be turned toward your body to get a good latch. Once they’re nursing well, go ahead and rest your arm on the pillow. Similarly, if the pillow is too low, you’ll end up hunching over and hurting your back, says Hamilton. Everyone is different, so what works for one mom won’t necessarily work for you. In those early days of breastfeeding, it can feel like you “have” to use a particular pillow or position to get it right, but it’s really about trying different approaches until you and your babe get the hang of things. 

Can I use a nursing pillow for bottle-feeding?

Arm, wrist and shoulder support are important when you bottle-feed, too, as you hold your baby in the crook of your arm at a 45-degree angle (not sitting up and not lying down either). 

You probably already became a pillow pro when you figured out how to get some supported sleep during your pregnancy, with one for your belly and boobs, another for your knees and a full body pillow down the middle of the bed. It just makes sense to keep your pillow game going as you feed your little one.  


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