Starting your breastfeeding journey is an exciting time for you and baby. But poor posture while nursing can quickly become a big pain in the neck.

With the possibility of sore and cracked nipples, milk supply problems, and mastitis, there’s a lot to figure out as you perfect your breastfeeding routine.

So it’s not surprising that breastfeeding posture falls to the bottom of the priority list — if you’re even aware of it at all.

Posture is a super important part of one’s well-being and can have a huge effect on your day-to-day life.

Poor posture can cause back and neck pain, headaches, and even low energy levels.

There are stretches and exercises you can do to fix common posture issues caused by prolonged sitting, poor shoe choice, and even scrolling through Instagram.

But many new moms are unaware that they’ve developed breastfeeding posture habits to begin with, and aren’t sure how to fix them once they realize it.

Breastfeeding your baby introduces a new set of habitual movements that can throw your body into imbalance and cause aches and pains.

Many breastfeeding women experience neck pain, mid back pain, and tension headaches from incorrect breastfeeding posture, but don’t have the knowledge or resources necessary to correct it and restore balance to their bodies.

“Not fixing your breastfeeding posture can have a dramatic implication on your [postpartum] recovery,” says Krystle Howald, PT, DPT, founder and owner of Empower Movement and Expecting and Empowered.

Howald says improper breastfeeding posture often negatively impacts rib positioning, which can not only delay pelvic floor recovery postpartum, but also worsen diastasis recti and make it harder to lessen the appearance of that postpartum belly.

“Where our ribs are [positioned] has a lot to do with how our diaphragm functions, which has a lot to do with healing your pelvic floor. If your diaphragm isn’t lined up well because of poor rib positioning, you won’t be able to automate your system [and strengthen your pelvic floor],” she says.

With the amount of feedings needed for your baby (or babies!), you might spend hundreds of hours in a position that puts unnecessary stress on your body.

And unfortunately, the longer it takes you to correct the habit, the longer you might feel aches and pains — even after you finish breastfeeding.

Howald recommends getting started with the proper breastfeeding posture as soon as possible to prevent any stubborn imbalances from forming. Here’s what she recommends as an ideal setup for you and your little one:

  1. Place your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Scoot your butt all the way back on the chair or couch.
    • If you can’t touch your feet to the floor with your butt all the way back, use a pillow for extra support.
  3. Keep your shoulders relaxed and away from your ears.
  4. Bring your baby to your breast rather than bending over to bring your breast to your baby.
    • Howald recommends using a breastfeeding pillow to achieve this. If the pillow doesn’t bring your baby close enough, you may need to use an extra towel or pillow to tilt your baby’s head toward your breast.
  5. We know it’s hard, but avoid staring down at your babe the entire time.
    • Too much neck flexion puts a lot of stress on your neck and back. Instead, try to keep your head neutral or even incorporate a simple neck extension exercise.

Keep in mind that it’s really important that you’re actually able to relax while feeding, which Howald says can only be achieved with the proper setup.

“[Your muscles] shouldn’t be so tense. It’s all about the setup — where the pillow is, having a rolled up towel that you can stick underneath one side so that your posture is mainly done through the setup. Taking the time to set this up correctly can put your body so much more at ease,” she says.

Howald stresses the importance of strengthening your back, shoulder, and neck muscles to truly combat the pain that can come with breastfeeding.

“During pregnancy, we’re already pulled forward because of the weight of the baby in the front. So when you go to breastfeed postpartum, the shoulders are still rounded forward,” she says. “Muscles are all about a length-tension relationship. If a muscle is too stretched out, it will spasm and burn, which is what a lot of breastfeeding moms feel.”

So while many new moms feel the urge to stretch out the burning and spasming muscles in their back and neck, the actual problem likely comes from a lack of strength.

“I could go to a chiropractor, I could have a massage therapist massage my back, and my back will still hurt because the muscles still have a poor length-tension relationship. They’ve been overstretched and overworked,” she says.

If you’re expecting or already a breastfeeding mom, here are some example exercises Howald recommends for strengthening your neck and back and safeguarding your body from pain associated with breastfeeding.

Remember

It can take 4 to 6 weeks of building muscle before you see the benefit of strength training, so stick with it to start finding relief!

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Sample upper body workout

Bent over reverse fly with dumbbells

  1. Hold a light dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, keeping a slight bend in your knees.
  3. Bend over at your waist, engaging your core and keeping your back straight and head neutral. Engage your shoulder blades, anchoring them down and back. (This makes sure you’re not using your upper trap muscles to carry the weight).
  4. Keeping your arms straight, raise your arms up to make the letter ‘T.’
  5. Stop when you get to shoulder height.
  6. Slowly return and repeat.

Pro tip: If you can’t keep your form with weights in your hand, drop ’em!

Bent over row with dumbbells

  1. Hold a light dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, keeping a slight bend in your knees.
  3. Bend over at your waist, engaging your core and keeping your back straight and head neutral. Engage your shoulder blades, anchoring them down and back.
  4. Start with your arms hanging straight down in front of you and then bend your elbows to lift the dumbbells up toward your side.
  5. Stop when the dumbbells reach your waist, squeezing through your shoulder blades.
  6. Slowly return and repeat.

Pro tip: Keep your elbows close to your rib cage throughout the whole movement.

Bent over alternating row with dumbbells

This exercise will follow the same directions as above, but alternating the row one arm at a time.

Side lying external rotation

  1. Lie down on your side and hold a dumbbell in the hand of your top arm.
  2. Engage your shoulder blade by anchoring it down and back.
  3. Keeping your arm glued to your side, raise the dumbbell up toward the ceiling by rotating your arm.
  4. When you reach the top of the exercise, give your shoulder blade an extra squeeze.
  5. Slowly return and repeat.

Pro tip: You can use a rolled up towel under your elbow for extra support.

For a more in-depth look at exercises you can do to strengthen your body for breastfeeding (and basically all of motherhood), check out Howald’s pregnancy and postpartum workout guides.

Before starting any new exercise or training program — particularly if you’ve recently given birth, are currently pregnant, or have underlying conditions — you should speak with your OB or a doctor.

“There are so many physical and emotional challenges that go into being a new mother that are so unexpected, so knowing what you can control going into motherhood to ease tension on your body is so valuable,” says Howald.

Proper breastfeeding posture can make a world of difference for new moms trying to find relief from back and neck pain. It’s important to start implementing these techniques as soon as possible after birth to prevent any longer lasting imbalances from forming.

If you’re having trouble finding relief or have already stopped breastfeeding and have chronic pain, consider visiting a physical therapist in your area to address your specific needs.

By committing to just a few minutes of targeted strength exercises each day, you’ll soon be on the road to full postpartum recovery.


Ruby Thompson is a health and wellness writer and enthusiast. She recently earned her master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and plans on using her degree to educate and inspire readers on their health and wellness journeys.