Infant Instincts & Laid-Back Breastfeeding: How your breastfeeding position might be working against you!

Do you find your baby “boxing” you, fighting the breast, and kicking their legs against the couch when you are trying to feed? Does it seem like they would rather suck on their fist than breastfeed? Read on to see how illuminating research by Suzanne Colson, PhD suggests that comfortable and successful breastfeeding might be all about instincts.

Upright Breastfeeding

Most of the clients I see in the first three months are using cross cradle, the position that is taught most often in the hospitals. In cross cradle, the parent uses one hand to support the baby’s neck and body while the baby feeds from the opposite side’s breast: Left hand for right breast, or right hand for left breast.

A cross-cradle position, where the mother’s right arm is holding the baby at her left breast. Her left hand is there to shape the breast.

This position can offer precise control for the parent, as they can use one hand to shape the breast while also deciding when the baby comes to the breast and at what angle. If a parent is experiencing pain, extra control can definitely come in handy. But this position can come with drawbacks, too. By allowing the parent to control all aspects of the latching on, this position prevents the baby from contributing to the latch, aside from when they open their mouth. The parent must use arm strength to bring the baby to the height of the breast, wrist strength keep the body tucked in close and the head supported, and timing skills to bring their baby’s mouth on at just the right moment. There is often shoulder and back pain involved as the parent may hunch forward to latch. In the early days coordinating all of those movements can be a struggle, especially if carpal tunnel syndrome is thrown into the mix. I often see sore wrists, babies slipping off the breast as the parent’s arm gets tired, and narrow latches as the baby is brought to the breast a few seconds too late.

Primitive Neonatal Reflexes

Babies are born with a number of predictable reflexes that have long been used to assess neurological function. These include [1]:

  • The rooting reflex, where the baby turns towards the side where the lips or cheek is touched and will open the mouth and start sucking motions
  • Hands to mouth, which triggers sucking and rooting reflexes and helps to comfort and organise the baby
  • Head lifting and bobbing, possibly triggered by pressure on the baby’s chest and back
  • Suck reflex, where the baby will suck if the roof of the mouth is touched
  • The stepping reflex, where the baby will make walking motions if the bottoms of the feet are pressed
  •  The grasp reflex, where the fingers will close if there is pressure on the palms
  • The Babkin reflex, seen below, where the baby will open their mouth and often rotate their head and flex their legs if pressure is applied to both palms [2]

When observed in an upright feeding position, such as cross cradle, many of these reflexes seem to get in the way. It is hard to get a baby to latch if they are sucking on their own fist, so parents often try and trap the baby’s arms to prevent this from happening. This prevents the Babkin and grasp reflexes from happening. The baby may start bobbing their head, which makes them headbutt the breast and brings them away from the nipple. If the soles of their feet press against the arm of a chair or back of a couch they may kick off of it due to the stepping reflex, moving their mouth out of alignment with the breast. All the while the parent is using their arm to keep the baby at the breast against the forces of gravity. This series of events can make breastfeeding feel like a struggle, and seems to pit the baby against the parent.

Laid-Back Breastfeeding or Biological Nurturing ™

Laid-back breastfeeding illustration. Copyright LLLUSA

In laid-back breastfeeding, the parent assumes a comfortable reclined position where their whole body can feel relaxed and supported. Then the infant is placed face-down on the parent so that their fronts are completely in contact with one another. In this position, gravity keeps the baby secure which frees up the parent’s hands. They’re then available to help the baby latch, add breast compressions, or see what’s good on Netflix. In this position, many of the infant reflexes that complicated latching before take on entirely new roles. The baby lifts and bobs the head to find the breast, steps up the parent’s body to get to the nipple, and uses the pressure of the body against the palms to open the mouth and latch on. Gravity helps to support the head and neck, and applies pressure against the chin to keep a nice wide latch and extended neck. The baby’s hands may also massage against the breast, increasing oxytocin levels in the parent- This reflex is seen in many other mammals as well! [3]
Feeding instincts aren’t the sole domain of the infant, either. New research seems to suggest that breastfeeding parents have their own innate responses as well. By reviewing breastfeeding footage of mother-infant pairs who are feeding in a laid-back position, patterns of maternal behaviour emerged. Parents spontaneously stroked their babies’ feet, leading to simultaneous foot, mouth, and tongue reflexes. The study found “During (biological nurturing) mothers appeared to trigger instinctively the right reflex at the right time.” [3] Take heart that you know more about breastfeeding than you may think!

Taking Research Into Practise

Some parents may be wary of laid-back breastfeeding because it may not seem as feasible in every context. It may not be the position you choose when at the mall or the library. That’s okay! There is no one way to breastfeed, and no right way to breastfeed. Breastfeeding is about doing what works for you in the current situation, and every feed looks a little different. Laid-back breastfeeding is a comfortable position that can help you to bond with your baby and learn their behaviours. It can relieve some of the pressure on you by giving the baby control in the latching and feeding, and uses their instincts to help the feeds instead of hindering them. It can be a great way to introduce yourself to breastfeeding, and a wonderful tool to use throughout the breastfeeding relationship. Why not give it a try?

If you’re interested in learning more or seeing this position in action, check out the video at http://www.naturalbreastfeeding.com/. It is lengthy but has great information!

  1. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=90&ContentID=P02630
  2. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/088307380401900805
  3. https://sites.oxy.edu/clint/learn/articles/Optimalpositionsforthereleaseofprimitiveneonatal.pdf