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Breastfeeding is Hard

Before becoming a mother, I had very little interaction with breastfeeding women. Like many of my generation, I was not breastfed as a child. I was once one of many who thought breastfeeding in public was gross. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I spent two years in Cameroon, West Africa where breastfeeding was the norm. Breastfeeding women were everywhere I went and soon it seemed completely normal and natural for me to see a woman feeding her child anywhere, anytime. When I returned from Africa, I also had the pleasure of seeing my twin sister nurse her two children. Much later, when I was ready to have children of my own, I was saw two of my best friends nurse their children as well. Despite all of this, I still felt nervous and wondered if I would be able to do it. While pregnant, the thought of anyone touching my breasts or sucking on my nipples for an extended period of time was extremely unappealing. Luckily, I had a lot of support from my husband, my friends, my midwives, and my online community of other pregnant women and mothers. Eventually, I felt confident enough to give away every formula sample that came in the mail and to stock up on breastfeeding books and nursing bras.

Despite being 100% convinced that breastfeeding was the normal and natural thing to do, I still found getting started to be a bit difficult. For me, it wasn’t easy from the start, and I did have a few minor struggles. I had to remind myself that it was important for me to know that this too was normal and that a little difficulty in the beginning should not prevent me from continuing. Breastfeeding is an art. It takes study, practice, and a bit of skill. All of these things do come with time. Breastfeeding, like raising a child, is a major commitment that requires a lot of time and energy on the mother’s part. And yes, sometimes breastfeeding is hard, especially at first. I don’t say this to discourage new mothers from doing it, but rather to prepare them. I think the more realistic picture a person has of breastfeeding the better prepared she will be to succeed at it. And for the record, bottle-feeding also requires a lot of time, energy, and money. 

Many women seem to already know the benefits of breastfeeding and are committed to doing it, but still may be a bit surprised by the reality of it, especially in the first few days/weeks. Whether you have seen others breastfeed or read every book there is, like giving birth, breastfeeding may not be what you expected. I want women to know that there are several things you can do to ease into breastfeeding an infant, and that it does get easier (and enjoyable) with time. You’ll be a pro before you know it and will whip out your breasts easily and readily anywhere and anytime you need to. Breastfeeding is absolutely the most wonderful gift you can give yourself and your baby, and it is worth sticking it out through the rough times. For me, breastfeeding became a special time between me and my son. It improved my confidence as a mother and as a woman. On the rare occasion that my son was sick and uninterested in food or water, he would always breastfeed. This helped ease my mind and speed his recovery.

Your family and friends may think it is strange that you want to breastfeed. My sister breastfed her two children way before I ever became pregnant, so my family was pretty nonplussed by it. (My homebirth, however, was a different story.) I found that my mother was fascinated by my breastfeeding and would often stare longingly at me and Satchel. Until you have done it yourself or known someone who has, breastfeeding is hard to understand. Many people are threatened by unfamiliar things. People will stare. People may say stupid and insensitive things to you. People might even try to scare you by saying your baby won’t get enough food or you’ll destroy your beautiful breasts forever. My grandmother loves to tell me that at 19 months, Satchel is too old to breastfeed. (I like to tell her how many things have changed in the last 96 years.) There is an incredible amount of information on the benefits of breastfeeding on the Internet and at the library. Keep some brochures handy, email links to people, or just smile and ignore everyone.

It is important to build a breastfeeding support network for yourself. Talk to experienced breastfeeding women in your circle of friends or at work. Go to a local La Leche League meeting. (At the very least, have the leader’s phone number handy.) Join an online mothering community where you can get support/advice at the touch of a button. (Online communities abound and finding a good fit for any personality type is not hard. I started out at and have since joined many other incredible communities.) Having someone to talk to when times are hard is extremely important and will help through the first days of breastfeeding. My best friend and midwives checked in on me regularly after delivery and were instrumental in my success. Many hospitals now have lactation consultants to offer breastfeeding support. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

After delivery, your baby may or may not latch on right away. If s/he does, then congratulations! You are off to a great start. If not, then don’t panic. You will soon either become amazed at your patience level, extremely frustrated, or maybe even familiar with breast shields or other breastfeeding gadgets. Chances are you won’t need anything except patience and support. Some babies need a little more time to learn how to latch on. Call your midwife, friend, LLL leader, or lactation consultant. Make sure you have a breastfeeding book on hand to help you with the finer details. (I recommend LLL’s The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding or So That’s What They’re For: Breastfeeding Basics by Janet Tamaro.) Once the latch is achieved, you will probably experience something between mild discomfort and actual hellish pain. A lot of books say if it hurts then you are doing it wrong, but sometimes it does hurt! But only at first. Your nipples will toughen up over time. (One day your baby will do a full 360 on your nipple and you’ll barely notice.) Lansinoh was a lifesaver for me, but you can also use your own breast milk to soothe sore nipples.

There are several different breastfeeding “holds”. Some work better than othersBoppy Lounger Pillow for different women. It is a very individual thing. Again a good breastfeeding book should outline the varied holds. It is also helpful to have a nursing pillow, like the Boppy, to assist you in positioning your baby. (Many other companies, and work at home mothers make nursing pillows if the Boppy is not for you.) I kept one Boppy by the TV and one by the computer. I love my Boppy. The fact that they were machine washable was extra nice, considering the number of milk stains they sustained. I cannot pass a Boppy in a store or at a yard sale without having a strong urge to purchase it!

Engorgement is another early stumbling block. I remember visiting a friend who was four days post partum. She was engorged beyond belief and in a lot of pain, but hiding it well. Her massage therapist friend came over with a head of cabbage and began stuffing her bra and massaging her breasts. My friend was being a trooper, but I left in tears, terrified of ever having a baby. However, one year later, I myself was engorged and in pain and not hiding it well, with my midwife massaging one breast and my best friend pumping the other. Since then, I do my best to try and prepare my friends for the day their milk comes in. I personally think a breast pump is indispensable for those first few days. By pumping or hand expressing extra milk you will not only give your breasts much needed relief, but you will also help fend off clogged ducts and possible mastitis. It is important to pump just enough to relieve the engorgement or you will continue to make too much milk because your body produces milk under the laws of supply and demand. If you are at risk for thrush (i.e. if you had antibiotics in labor, or if you or the baby have taken them since the birth), try to eat some yogurt everyday to help ward it off. Since becoming pregnant with Satchel, I have made a yogurt, tofu, flax oil, and fruit smoothie a part of my morning ritual.

Once engorgement ceases, leakage ensues. (Not all women leak, if you don’t, consider yourself lucky, not a failure.) You may find yourself sleeping in your nursing bra or a soaked t-shirt. Breast pads will soon pile up next to your maxi pads/gladrags. You may not be able to leave the house without them. As soon as you get used to leaking all the time and feeling full, your body will regulate itself and you will be convinced that your supply has run out. But do not fear, as long as your baby is thriving and creating a wet diaper every few hours, things are fine. Trust your body. Do not worry about the number of ounces you are producing or fall prey to the free formula samples that come in your mailbox. Your baby and your milk supply are working together toward a common goal. If your supply really is decreasing, there are plenty of herbal remedies and natural teas such as Mothers Milk to help you. If you do end up supplementing a bit, it isn’t the end of the world. Just do your best to work with the laws of supply and demand. Too much supplementing can decrease your milk supply permanently. Your body can produce enough milk for your baby. You don’t need to give him/her extra water or rice cereal despite what well-meaning family members/old school pediatricians may tell you.

You will also become familiar with a strange sensation in your breasts called the “let-down” which signals the release of milk. Some women never actually feel the let-down, while others compare it to having contractions during labor. Hopefully you will fall somewhere in the middle. I experienced the let-down as a build up of pressure followed by a feeling of relief, similar to the feeling one gets after emptying a very full bladder. I have also heard it described as a tingling sensation.

Some women have a “dominant” breast. My right breast was a fountain of milk and seemed to produce twice as much as my left breast. This was especially noticeable when pumping. I don’t know if the dominant breast is a result of unconsciously favoring one breast over the other, but it does seem to be fairly common and no cause for worry. If you have a dominant breast, be mindful of how it affects your baby. Sometimes the milk may be too much to ingest at once or it may be just right.

While breastfeeding you may have to change your diet to suit your baby’s brand new digestive system. (However, breastfeeding on a diet of McDonalds is still more nutritionally beneficial to the baby than formula.) You probably already made changes while pregnant, so it isn’t too hard. But what you eat will now directly affect your baby, so it is important to be mindful of the food choices you make. Caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco are still major no-no’s. (Finding new ways to deal with stress are very important.) Try to remind yourself of all the breastfeeding benefits to your baby—increased immunity to illness, optimal nourishment, mother-child bonding, etc.—when you feel overwhelmed. After a few weeks/months what you eat will affect your baby less and less and you can resume eating your favorite spicy, dairy, and gassy foods. (Also when you feel up to it, you can treat yourself to a night out and “pump and dump” any “contaminated” milk.)

You will find yourself spending a lot of time in your favorite chair or in your bed with a small child attached to your breast. (You may even find yourself on the toilet with a small child on your breast!) Make yourself a breastfeeding basket to carry around with you. Include a snack, a book, some mama zines, a tube of Lansinoh, a bottle of water, the remote control, and the phone. Enjoy this time with your baby and relax. (You will long for it when you are busy chasing a toddler.) After awhile you can upgrade to a sling or other baby carrier. You may soon find yourself nursing your babe while doing dishes or weeding your garden. There are several different styles of slings out there, so find the one that works best for you. I started off with a Baby Bjorn and moved to a Hip Hammock later, however I always envied the mamas with their Maya Wraps.

Consider sleeping with your baby to maximize your sleep at night. Once I mastered the side lying position I was a happy woman. After a few months you will be able to nurse in your sleep without you or your baby completely waking up. You will also have the added benefit of knowing your baby is safe and sound right next to you. I know sleeping next to Satchel and hearing him breathe steadily throughout the night really helped me to get a good night’s sleep.

Whether or not you return to work while breastfeeding, you may want to invest in a pump. (However, there are certainly lots of mamas who survive just fine without pumps!) Not only do pumps help ease engorgement for the first few days, but when your baby is a few months old, you can pump breast milk into a bottle and let daddy or grandma feed the baby while you sleep, go see a movie, or go for a swim. If you do return to work, consider getting an electric pump so you don’t end up with carpal tunnel. In most states, your employer is legally required to provide a place and time for you to express milk. I pumped in the morning and afternoon and went to the daycare at lunch to nurse my son in person for 8 months. I quit pumping at a year, but continue to nurse him in the mornings, evenings, and on demand on the weekends. Working a full time job does not mean you have to give up breastfeeding. With a little planning, and determination you can succeed. Be sure and alert your coworkers to what you are doing so an air of mystery isn’t created. I once had a man call security when I didn’t answer my door or phone.

By six months or so you will be a breastfeeding pro, able to whip out your breasts at a moment’s notice without leaking on your blouse (or lactivist t-shirt). Your supply will have regulated to the point that your breasts feel almost normal and you will probably be breast pad free. In addition, you will probably feel comfortable enough to feed your baby anywhere you like—at the park, in the mall, at the bookstore, or in a restaurant. Don’t let anyone discourage you. In most states, breastfeeding is legally allowed anywhere a mother is legally allowed to be. Breastfeeding is normal and natural and NOT the equivalent of using the bathroom in public. Breastfeeding has the word FEEDING in it for a reason. I’ve yet to have a bad experience while breastfeeding in public, even with a squirming toddler doing the feeding.

After an extended period of breastfeeding, especially if you are still breastfeeding throughout the night, you may start to feel a little burnt out. Some days you may bask in the glory that is your baby and smile upon every suckle, but some days you may feel like tearing off your breasts and throwing them across the room. If it is the latter, be honest with yourself and make any changes you feel necessary. You may want to cut out a feeding or two and replace it with cow’s milk (if it is after one year) or more solids (if it is after six months), you may want to night wean, etc. It is ok to set limits for your own sanity. Everyone has her own breaking point. Many women choose to stop nursing when they become pregnant, at the two year mark, when their child begins walking, weans him/herself, etc. It is up to you.

Breastfeeding can be hard at times, but it is worth the time and effort. Prepare yourself to succeed.

Written by: Stacey Greenberg


Breastfeeding Books: