When many of us imagine breastfeeding or chestfeeding, we picture a happy baby calming nursing, comfortably nestled in the crook of our arm. And while many of us do end up having peaceful, fuss-free moments like this, most of us find that feeding our babies is anything but simple, at least at first.
Latching and positioning, in particular, can be tricky. Figuring out how to hold a baby just the right way to get them latching on well — and then sustaining that latch and position throughout the nursing session — isn’t always easy. Sometimes it takes trial and error to find a position that works.
We’ve all been there. It’s totally fine if you and your baby take a little while to figure it all out. After all, you’re both just learning how to do this!
It’s also OK if you need some assistance: Almost all of us can benefit from professional help, or just help from someone who’s done it themselves.
Either way, it can also be super helpful to have a position “cheat sheet” handy as you begin your breastfeeding journey — or at any point along the way. There’s where we come in. You’re welcome.
When it comes to finding a comfortable and effective nursing position, it’s best to have options — because no two parents are alike and neither are their babies. Luckily, there are many positions to choose from.
1. Cradle hold
This is the most traditional breastfeeding or chestfeeding position, and it’s what most of us picture when we imagine nursing baby.
In the cradle hold, you hold your baby’s body with the arm nearest to the breast you’re nursing from. So, if they’re nursing on your left breast, you’ll hold their body with your left arm. Gently cradle their back with your forearm, and make sure they’re tummy to tummy with you, their head turned toward your chest.
You can use your free arm to support your breast or shape your nipple so it’s easier for baby to latch.
2. Cross-cradle hold
This hold is a variation on the cradle hold, and it allows you to give your breast and baby a little extra support. It also allows a little more control and is a good position for new parents.
Hold your baby’s body with the opposite arm from the breast you’re nursing with. Hold and support your breast with your arm nearest to it.
For example, if baby’s feeding on your left breast, you’d hold their body with your right arm and support your left breast with your left hand.
3. Football hold
Sometimes called the “rugby hold,” this position is great for feeding after a C-section, as it takes the weight of your baby off your lap and away from your incision. This position also allows you to see your baby nurse more fully as they latch — so you can ensure they’re latching well.
In this position, you hold your baby on the side of your body, with your arm supporting their back and your fingers gently supporting their neck. You can use your other hand to support your breast as you latch them on.
Often, using a pillow to support baby’s body is helpful.
4. Football hold for twins
The football hold is a favorite among parents nursing twins. You’ll have one baby on each side and one on each breast. A nursing pillow can help you support your babies as they come into this position. Having a helper around to hand you the babies is invaluable, too.
5. Side-lying position
All new parents should learn this position, because it’s one of the best ways to get rest — and oh, how you need it when you’re nursing all day and night!
First, make sure the surface you’re nursing on is free of pillows and extra blankets. Lie on your side and position your baby on their side so that they’re close to you, tummy to tummy. Position them a little below your breast as they come to latch on.
You can support your neck or back with a pillow, and you can support your baby with your free arm.
6. Laid-back breastfeeding
This position taps into your baby’s biological instincts to feed, and it’s really comfy for you, too.
In this position, you lean back — propped up on pillows, the side of a couch, or a recliner. Then, you place your baby directly on your chest, belly down. Gravity keeps your baby in place for you.
You can either let your baby crawl up to the breast themselves and try to latch or gently help them find the breast. You can shape or hold your breast or not, depending on your preference.
7. Upright breastfeeding (aka koala hold)
This position is best for an older baby who has some head and neck control. It works really well for babies who have reflux or are having trouble keeping up with your flow.
In this position, your baby sits upright, straddling your leg. You can gently support baby’s back and neck as well as your breast.
8. Dangle feeding
If you’re dealing with a plugged duct or mastitis, this position can be a lifesaver. Basically, you lay your baby on their back and you lean over them on all fours, offering them the breast.
Gravity can help drain your breast. You can massage out your clog as you nurse.
9. Lying down with twins
Having twins doesn’t mean you should be deprived of relaxing and resting while you nurse. Many parents find that lying flat on their backs and having their babies nurse belly to belly with them — one baby on each breast — works well. Other parents will do the football or upright breastfeeding hold while semi-reclined in bed.
10. Breastfeeding in a baby carrier
Breastfeeding or chestfeeding in a baby carrier is a convenient and discreet way to nurse. If you’re using a baby sling, you’ll likely need to loosen the sling a little to get your baby in an optimal position. Usually a cradle hold works best for this.
While using an upright carrier, you can loosen the straps a little to give baby room to nurse and so you can get your arms in to support your breasts. Wearing a nursing top is essential if you don’t want to pull up your entire shirt!
When it comes to nursing, latching is everything. A good latch ensures that your baby will efficiently remove milk from your body and that the process is comfortable for you.
Usually a “good latch” will mean that your baby’s mouth is open widely and that they’re snug against you. However, it’s not just about how a latch looks: It’s about how it feels and whether baby is nursing effectively while doing it.
Here are some tips for getting the most effective latch.
Support and shape your breast
It can be very helpful at first to hold and support your breast for your baby. Use your free hand to cup your breast in a C-shape. You can also shape your breast into a “sandwich” by moving your fingers closer to your nipple and gently pressing down.
Support your baby
Always hold your baby belly to belly with you, and make sure your baby’s head is turned toward your breast.
You can hold their body close to you by placing your arm across their back and supporting the back of their neck with your fingers.
Don’t press on the back of their head. You want their head and neck free so they can move themselves into the best suckling position. It can be helpful to place their head “nose to nipple” and have them come up from below as they latch on.
Is it supposed to hurt?
When a baby is well latched, feeding shouldn’t hurt. However, it’s common for there to be a little tenderness as you’re learning to nurse. And some soreness for the first 30 or so seconds is fine if it subsides, isn’t present for the duration of the feed, and doesn’t hurt between feedings.
If your nipple is cracked or bleeding, it’s a sign that something isn’t working. And usually the problem is that there isn’t a deep enough latch. Get more breast in baby’s mouth so the nipple is farther back in their throat.
How latch and positioning changes for older kids
Breastfeeding a toddler can be wonderful, but sometimes a baby’s latch changes as they get older. They may also be more squirmy or playful with their positioning, which can sometimes lead to sore nipples.
The same rules apply here as with feeding younger babies apply. You want your toddler to have a wide gap upon latching, and you want them to stay close and snuggled against you, belly to belly.
Latching when you’re engorged
If you’re experiencing engorgement — either in the newborn period or later on — you might find latching more difficult. Very engorged breasts can cause your nipples to flatten, which makes latching harder for your baby.
So, before breastfeeding or chestfeeding, it’s important to express a little milk so that your nipples become flatter and more pliable. You can also place gentle pressure around the perimeter of your nipples and massage your nipples and chest.
It’s not necessary to fully drain your milk — you want your baby to do that. Just express enough to release engorgement so that latching is easier.
Learning different breastfeeding or chestfeeding positions and techniques can be a game changer when it comes to making nursing work for you and your baby.
However, sometimes attempting these techniques on your own isn’t enough, and it can be really helpful to have someone help you figure out how to try these positions, especially the first few times.
Don’t hesitate to reach out to a lactation consultant, a volunteer nursing counselor, or another experienced parent for help. Soon enough, you’ll be the experienced one.