All you really need to breastfeed is a breast (or two!) and a baby who can suckle. But advertising is big business and there are lots of products on the market aimed at breastfeeding mothers—from nursing covers, creams and bras, to pumps, pacifiers and special pillows. Are they really needed? This article looks at the commercial breastfeeding pillow and whether it is a necessary purchase.
A breastfeeding pillow is not essential
In many cases a breastfeeding pillow can cause more problems than it solves. By placing a big firm padded cushion in your lap and then adding your baby on top it is quite likely that your baby could be positioned too high at the breast. Generally a baby is able to get a better latch (the way baby attaches to the breast) if they are slightly lower than your breast and snuggled in close to you. Mysterious cases of sore nipples and “persistent thrush”—that wasn’t thrush—have been finally cured by throwing out the breastfeeding pillow.
Using a pillow
The best way to use a pillow (and one off your bed will do) is either behind your back to support yourself or, after latching your baby on, use a pillow or cushion to support your arms wherever they land.
Breastfeeding without a pillow
When your body takes your baby’s weight in more reclining positions, you won’t need a pillow in your lap at all. For much more help with finding a comfortable breastfeeding position without a pillow see the articles Breastfeeding Positions for Newborns, Breastfeeding Videos, and Latching Tips.
In Sweet Sleep: Nighttime and Naptime Strategies for the Breastfeeding Family, LLLI, 2014 the authors caution against breastfeeding pillows as both problematic and a possible suffocation risk if you’re very tired:
Most breastfeeding helpers have seen breastfeeding pillows cause more breastfeeding problems than they solve. It’s well worth getting breastfeeding help if you think you need one.
And here’s something that might surprise you. A breastfeeding pillow can be a suffocation risk when you’re really tired. Picture the exhausted mother who has her baby on the pillow in her lap. Sitting upright in her chair or even in bed, she starts to droop forward more and more, until enough of her body or breast weight is on the baby to interfere with his breathing. Without the pillow, there’s more room for the baby to slide into her lap and there’s lots of body contact to waken her if that happens.
But I really like my pillow!
If breastfeeding is going well and you use a pillow safely that’s fine too. There will be some mothers and babies for whom a pillow works perfectly well. If you’re breastfeeding twins you may find a specialist twin breastfeeding pillow is indispensable. Or maybe you need a firm pillow to lift baby to breast height in a rugby hold. So long as breastfeeding is comfortable and baby is gaining weight, a pillow doesn’t have to be a problem but it is not an essential purchase.
As baby grows
If you have got into the habit of popping a breastfeeding pillow in your lap before you breastfeed and it’s working, watch out for a time in a few weeks or months when your baby has grown so much that the pillow may begin to get in the way. For example if the pillow lifts baby higher than the breast, you may find you begin to have sore nipples or that your baby begins to fuss during feeds as it will affect how easily they can latch on.
A commercial breastfeeding pillow is not an essential item for breastfeeding a baby. A breastfeeding pillow might be helpful for some mothers in the early weeks but for others it can mean baby is too high at the breast. Pillows can be helpful to support a mother’s back or arms after baby is latched, but existing cushions or pillows off the bed can also serve this purpose.