Slings and effective breastfeeding
How can using a sling, carrier or carrying aid help support a chestfeeding relationship? In this article, I’d like to explore some of the ways I’ve found personally, read about or supported other families through. Slings can be a valuable tool in supporting a breastfeeding journey.
We also have some specific advice on how to chestfeed or breastfeed in a sling.
I’m a mother of two toddlers, aged almost 2 and almost 4, both “still” breastfeeding. Being able to feed in our carriers has truly been a life changer, first helping me get to grips with this new relationship and new role as mother, and then allowing me to care more successfully for two small people.
No ‘best’ sling for chestfeeding
It’s really useful to get out of the way to start with that there isn’t a “best” sling for breastfeeding, just as there is no “best” pair of jeans. Every baby and parent body is different, so it’s worth finding a sling/carrier you are comfortable with and talking to your local sling library/consultant about adjusting it for your feeding needs.
Be prepared to ask for help with chestfeeding if you need it, and know where to find it. Face to face support can be found by contacting your midwife or health visitor, one of the main volunteer organisations:
- Association of Breastfeeding Mothers
- The Breastfeeding Network and their statement of learning to improve their support to trans, nonbinary, and chest-feeding parents
- La Leche League UK (Their trans-inclusivity statement and chestfeeding page)
- or by calling one of the main helplines.
There is also a Start4Life chatbot available for Alexa/Facebook messenger that can provide some simple information. The Facebook group Birthing and Breast or Chestfeeding Trans People and Allies can be a helpful and supportive community.
Safety when breastfeeding in a sling
Whenever you use any sling/carrier (and in fact any baby equipment from moses baskets to bouncers), you will need to be able to monitor your baby at all times. You’ll want to make sure their nose and mouth are free of fabric and you have can clearly see their face. If you have adjusted your sling to chestfeed, you’ll need to keep one hand supporting your baby and return them to their original position once finished.
If your baby does not yet have good head control, support them with a hand between their shoulder blades, or under their neck (take care to keep hands/fabric away from the back of baby’s head). It’s worth noting that an option that worked well for you with previous children or even last week may need different adjustments as your breast/chest changes throughout pregnancy and the early weeks of breastfeeding.
As always, stay comfortable and make changes as needed.
Mechanics of chestfeeding
In pregnancy, your body is already preparing to breastfeed (in fact it’s been preparing since your breasts first started to develop!), making colostrum from around 16-22 weeks. The hormones produced after your placenta is delivered signal your body to begin changing the constituents of your milk – bodies are amazing! Following this, milk production starts to work on a “supply and demand” system: the amount of new milk made depends on how much milk has been removed. Once you get started though, you’re always producing: mammary glands are never truly “empty”.
Chests and nipples are pretty amazing and come in all shapes, sizes, colours and point in different directions. That makes it really difficult for me to be able to write a blog post that can give really specific information! It doesn’t matter what size/shape your breasts/nipples are. It’s about finding what works for you and your baby. If you are able, it may be worth visiting your local library or chatting to It’s a Sling Thing to think about carrier options that work for your body shape and watching some of the videos available on the Unicef Baby Friendly website.
Babies feed very frequently, this is normal. If you have worries about how often your baby is feeding, your child’s health record (sometimes called a red book) will have a chestfeeding assessment in it that you can go through yourself, or with the support of a midwife/health visitor. A sling/carrier can take some of the weight of a baby, or even just allow you to care for older children or eat dinner while you feed.
In the beginning of your breastfeeding relationship
The brand new person you made, and the brand new parent you’ve become have an incredible relationship stretching in front of them. All babies have a strong need to be close to their parents, and when meeting them for the first time skin-to-skin contact is a fantastic way to start the getting-to-know-you process.
Slings, premature babies and kangaroo care
For premature babies in particular, there are many options out there to support giving your baby “kangaroo care” while in a hospital setting, which studies have shown is linked with higher rates of breastfeeding. Kangaroo care refers to keeping babies skin to skin with [usually] their birth parent, for as long as possible. It can be done even if your baby is attached to tubes/wires.
Slings help parents learn feeding cues
Keeping your baby close to you either in arms or in a sling/carrier helps you to learn their ways of communicating not only when they are hungry, but when they are tired, need a nappy change or are cold/hot. Responding to your baby’s need quickly builds a strong relationship and will keep the supply/demand milk production going.
Actually feeding in a sling
It can sometimes feel like a bit of a tangle (although of course not always!) learning how to hold your baby, position them and you comfortably and sustainably, latch them effectively to the nipple and then stay that way for the duration of a feed. Using a carrier as an extra hand can help you focus more on how baby’s mouth is attaching, and many chestfeeding issues can be resolved with tweaking positioning and attachment.
Principles of effective feeding
Key principles are:
- Bring baby in close to your body
- Make sure their head is free to tip back
- Keep their body in a line (not twisted or turned)
- Allow their nose to be level with your nipple (whichever direction that may be!)
- Watch for a wide open mouth, with chin touching the breast
Out and about chestfeeding in a sling
You might find that in sling carrier your human milk fed baby becomes a lot more portable, especially if you are able to feed in a sling! Some babies even prefer movement when feeding which can be a lot more comfortable with the “extra hand” of a carrier.
It’s really normal to think about your first feed in public, many carriers can provide a lot of coverage even if you are not wearing it at the time. Often you don’t need to make too many adjustments to go from carrying to feeding, and wraps especially can be used as feeding covers.
When my first born was around 10 weeks old, we decided it would be a good idea to drive to visit my sister in Germany and he lived in our carrier – comfort, food and safety available for him in one spot and plenty of holiday adventuring for me!
Post-newborn and beyond
That skin-to-skin contact we mentioned earlier doesn’t need to stop at the newborn days! Poorly, teething, overtired or generally frazzled babies/toddlers will still benefit from the warm, loving closeness of skin-to-skin. Using a sling or carrier to support the weight of your child alongside making them feel secure can encourage them to feed more frequently, helping them when they feel unwell or to fall asleep, and giving you your hands free and keeping you warm in cold weather.
Sling can help manage feeding wriggly older babies and toddlers
If you’ve breastfed an older baby or toddler, you may have found them to be a bit more easily distracted or fairly “flaily” with their arms and legs. With a sling/carrier, you can give them a feeling of safety and security, and often limit their area of view when feeding to reduce their gaze getting diverted.
Building a community can really help, and the carrying and chestfeeding worlds are truly amazing. You can find your local libraries and breastfeeding groups, where you’ll be able to meet other local parents and share experiences. It’s lovely to have people around you in the same stage of their parenting journey who you know have experience around chestfeeding and carrying; even if it’s just to moan!
In special circumstances or with additional needs
Some parents with chronic illness or physical disabilities find that using a sling/carrier can enable them to sustain otherwise unachievable breastfeeding positions. This can help with making sure feeds can carry on until the baby unlatches, rather than having to end when the parent is too uncomfortable to continue.
Joint pain or muscle weakness can make it more difficult for parents to lift and hold their children, so reducing the need to do this for each transition (e.g. nap – feed – burp – nappy – nap) by learning to feed in a sling/carrier and feel comfortable enough to have baby nap in there can have a really positive impact on both physical and mental health.
When tandem feeding, or with multiple babies, it can be worth thinking specifically about how to ensure access to the breast for one child if another is asleep in the carrier. A fair few times when my second was born, my first would demand “boop” and both my clothes and my carry needed significant amounts of adjustment to get it out for him!
Returning to lactation
Not all breastfeeding journeys are continuous, and some parent may want to return to feeding after a break. While there are lots of excellent articles out there about relactation, using a sling/carrier specifically and allowing babies unhindered access to the chest (alongside a supplemental nursing system if needed) can help with milk production.
There we go – a whistlestop tour of how a sling or carrier can help facilitate a breastfeeding journey. There are a lot of resources out there to support you further if you need them – happy chestfeeding!
A guest blog from Brianna Dymond
I’m a carrying consultant in Birmingham, running The Happy Sling Lady library and consultancy service. The focus of my work is on empowering parents to meet their children’s needs effectively alongside building community and friendship. I volunteer for various breastfeeding peer support organisations, and am a development officer for our local breastfeeding support service. At the moment, I’m working towards sitting the International Board Certified Lactation Consultant exam – a long, hard slog! I have two hilarious, sleep-hating, loving and fulfilling children, who are the motivation behind everything I do.