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Are Hospitals Teaching Breastfeeding the Wrong Way?

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The scariest part of my hospital birth wasn't the delivery. It was when the nurse came in to show me how to breastfeed.

She started out by arranging pillows around my body in a configuration so elaborate, I knew I'd never be able to repeat it. Then, like a human mammogram, she squeezed and flattened my swollen breast before offering it my baby. As my newborn daughter began to suck, the nurse corrected my hand placements, body position, angle of holding and Baby's latch, all with the precision of an advanced Pilates instructor. I felt panicky—if breastfeeding was this complex, I didn't know if I'd succeed.

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The irony of all this? It was my second baby. I'd already nursed the first one for 15 months with few issues. Now here I was four years later, getting a refresher course that was so complicated, so demoralizing, I briefly wondered if I'd ever be able to nurse on my own.

Luckily, once at home, my instincts kicked back in and I was able to wipe away the memory of my awkward nursing sessions at the hospital. My second baby and I are now six months into a very rewarding breastfeeding relationship. But what if that had been my first baby? What if I'd been discouraged enough to give up?

A recent article in Mothering suggests that hospitals may be teaching breastfeeding the wrong way entirely. The positions typically taught—a cradle hold or a football hold—are essentially bottle-feeding positions, and not necessarily the most natural for a nursing mother or baby.

Modern women have come to accept the idea that some moms and babies just can't figure out breastfeeding. Yet, for most of human history, there were no pumps.

Nancy Mohrbacher, IBCLC, FILCA, recommends that new mothers practice what she calls "natural" or "laid-back" breastfeeding, in which mom reclines while baby lays on top of her, belly to belly. In this position, the baby will instinctively root for and find mom's nipple—no readjustments required.

"Natural breastfeeding makes the early weeks of breastfeeding easier by taking advantage of the innate newborn responses that are stimulated by gravity and contact," says Mohrbacher. "It helps you avoid unnecessary pain and struggle while you and your baby are learning." Not only is a laid-back position easier for new moms to figure out, but it's more comfortable and relaxing, with fewer backaches and less nipple pain.

Admittedly, it's not always convenient to recline while nursing—for instance, this would be hard to pull off in a restaurant—but as Mohrbacher says, "Natural breastfeeding is like the training wheels on a bicycle." Once nursing is established and the baby is bigger, other positions will come more easily.

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I have a friend who describes herself as exclusively pumping because she could never get her baby to accept the breast. I'm glad she's still able to feed her baby breast milk, since that was her goal, but I can see how disappointed and exhausted she feels. She's not the only one. According to a 2013 study, while the majority of mothers start out breastfeeding, about half stop after a few weeks, citing nipple pain and supply concerns.

Modern women have come to accept the idea that some moms and babies just can't figure out breastfeeding. Yet, for most of human history, there were no pumps. Women learned from their mothers and sisters. Babies operated by instinct. Somehow, it worked. So what's changed? Is it possible that well-meaning hospital staffs are actually working at cross purposes with moms by teaching breastfeeding the wrong way?

I'm glad hospitals try to support nursing mothers, but I'd like to see them embrace a style that could involve fewer rules and more success.

Maybe this natural breastfeeding technique is worth a shot.

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