Breastfeeding Positions to Assist Baby’s Reflexes

When my second son was born, I visited a few IBCLC’s to help figure out why he nursed so frequently without ever seeming to fill up. He was a snacker! Their advice was for me to try laid back breastfeeding. My takeaway (probably they said more things!) was that I should try to get comfortable, because we’d be there for awhile with my snoozing snacker.Newborn baby girl right after delivery, shallow focus

In trying to refresh my memory about breastfeeding a newborn (everything is so different nursing a toddler! I’ve been reading about infants…), I learned that laid-back breastfeeding is about so much more than comfort for Mama.

Newborn babies have 20 Primitive Neonatal Reflexes that, depending on positioning for nursing, can either work for breastfeeding…or against it!

My favorite IBCLC to read, Nancy Mohrbacher, talks about how these specific reflexes are important for getting breastfeeding off to a good start:

  • Rooting
  • Sucking
  • Swallowing
  • hand to mouth
  • mouth gaping/opening
  • tongue licking
  • arm and leg cycling
  • head lifting
  • head bobbing
  • stepping/crawling

Who knew babies were born doing all of these things and that all of them are cues for hunger? Apparently, Mohrbacher and other researchers. They discovered that human babies are hard-wired to nurse while lying on their bellies. If we try to sit up to nurse brand new babies, we create a distance between baby’s belly and our own, gravity is working against the head bobbing, the arm cycling is not drawing milk from the breast, and latch becomes more difficult.

Babies nursing while mom is laid back use their hands and feet to stabilize and ground themselves. The hands help baby find and shape the breast and stimulate the milk flow. Yes, even brand new babies a few hours old.

If a new mother lies back and places the baby on her belly, everything lines up so that baby can make his own way to the nipple and do a lot of the work to latch on himself!

Even after a cesarean delivery, a mother can lie back and position the baby on his belly off to the side (or even up over her shoulder!!!) to allow baby to exercise these primitive neonatal reflexes. Mohrbacher says that even a sleeping infant can trigger these reflexes and nurse without waking, given belly-to-belly access to Mama.

Better still? Researchers found that when mothers were cued to try laid back breastfeeding, even new mothers required no “teaching” or intervention to get breastfeeding going after 24 hours. Mohrbacher points out that a lot of teaching and information can be overwhelming and lead mothers to think there are specific steps or instructions for breastfeeding–laid back breastfeeding allows the mother/baby pair to work things out together while everyone is comfortable and supported.

(Although I’d argue that hospital beds are far from comfortable…)

Mohrbacher reminds us that this type of positioning also allows a mother to hold her baby comfortably for longer periods of time, and extended contact between the pair helps to trigger instinctive behaviors from mothers, too.

Needless to say, I’m more excited than ever to lie back and cuddle my new baby chest to chest. I’ll probably leave my breastfeeding pillow at home in favor of finding ways to make sure my arms feel supported in those lumpy hospital beds. I’m curious to watch this new baby’s reflexes in action…and to try nursing him up and over my shoulder regardless of my delivery.

In compiling this blog post, I consulted the following sources:

  1. Counseling the Nrusing Mother: A Lactation Consultant’s Guide, 5th Edition, by Judith Lauwers and Anna Swisher
  2. Biological Nurturing and Late Preterm Babies by Nancy Mohrbacher
  3. Optimal Positions for the Release of Primitive Neonatal Reflexes Stimulating Breastfeeding by Colson SD, Meek JH, and Hawdon JM, Early Human Development, 2008 Jul; 84(7): 441-9.


Did you practice laid back breastfeeding with your newborn? Leave us a comment to share your experiences!

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