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Nursing Pillows: Who Needs Them?

By Norma Ritter, IBCLC, RLC

Did you know that nursing pillows were originally designed to prop up babies who are not quite ready to sit on their own? They became popular when women started using them to help them nurse.

Nowadays these curved pillows are on many “must have” check lists. They can sometimes be quite useful. For example, mothers who are nursing twins may find it helps to use the extra-wide pillows. Being able to lie the twins on each side of the pillow is almost like having an extra arm.

Unfortunately, nursing pillows are not always as helpful as people think they will be.

Emily and her friend Lauren were both upset because breastfeeding was not going well. Like many new mothers, they thought breastfeeding would just come naturally. They had not taken any classes or read anything about breastfeeding before their babies were born. Now they were wondering why they were having difficulties.

You may be surprised at the reason for both Emily and Lauren’s problems – nursing pillows!

Lauren took her new nursing pillow to the hospital and began using it as soon as her baby was born. However, she quickly noticed that Baby Ethan was not nursing well and not gaining enough weight. Added to that, her nipples were getting sore. Lauren tried holding her baby in different positions, but nothing seemed to help. Even her back seemed to hurt.

Emily had been so happy that nursing had gone so well in the hospital. Her problems started when she got home and found that a nursing pillow had arrived as a gift.

“Lily had just loved to nurse, but when I started to use the pillow, everything changed,” she said, crying softly. “Lily tried so hard to latch on. We both became very frustrated and my nipples became sore. It was awful.”

So what was it about the nursing pillows that made it difficult for Lauren’s and Emily’s babies to nurse?

They can actually create problems where none existed before. Babies need to be very close to their mothers’ bodies to get a good latch, and nursing pillows often get in the way. Most mothers do not need nursing pillows. In fact, it is much easier to get a good latch without one!

The instructions on how to use the pillows are not always clear or accurate.

  • Laying your baby on the pillow can make it difficult for him to latch. This makes it more likely you will get sore nipples. Your baby needs to be turned toward your body to get a good latch. AFTER he has started nursing well, you can rest your arm on the pillow.
  • Many mothers get backaches from leaning over a baby placed on a nursing pillow.
  • One size does NOT fit all, and there are no standard sizing charts. This makes it difficult to know which brand or design will work best for you. Your height, the length of your arms and the size of your waist can all make a difference.
  • Nursing pillows are bulky. It can be a nuisance to take one with you every time you go out!

Luckily, both Emily and Lauren were able to get the help they needed. As soon as they learned how to position their babies so they could get a good latch, nursing became much easier.

Nursing a baby is supposed to feel comfortable. If it hurts to nurse, it means there is something wrong. The good news is that most breastfeeding concerns can be easily fixed, so do get help right away.

Norma Ritter, IBCLC, RLC

Norma Ritter is the mother of three grown children and the grandmother of six grandchildren, all of whom were breastfed.

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