When Breastfeeding Is Hard

My mother made breastfeeding look so easy. She nursed me til I was 3 ½ years old; my sister til she self-weaned at 18 months, and my youngest sister til she was almost 5! She nursed for 8 years straight. Let’s just say she could have nursed in the Olympics. Thanks to my devoted mother, I grew up knowing that breastfeeding was normal and natural, and I never doubted that I would nurse my own babies. It was a given based on my family’s culture; I never questioned it. I grew up with a passion for breastfeeding, which was later intensified when I became obsessed with everything about birth; I even became a CLC (Certified Lactation Counselor) and eventually started teaching a breastfeeding class for expectant parents! I totally thought I knew what I was talking about. (And I was plenty judgmental of moms who did not breastfeed).

Then I had a baby.

Then, even though I knew what was wrong with my baby’s latch, I could not figure out how to make my baby do it right.

Then, even though I knew it was normal to have some discomfort in the early days of breastfeeding, I cried when it was time to nurse because I was scared of the pain.

Then, even though I had a 9lb healthy baby, I worried that he would die of starvation because I couldn’t nurse him enough.

It didn’t matter that I “knew” about breastfeeding. Knowing about something and knowing how to do something are completely different things, and this may never have been more true than in the case of breastfeeding. I can’t believe I’m actually going to pen this, but if I’m being honest, I must admit that I thought I was “above” most breastfeeding struggles. I thought that because I had so much information, and so many resources, that I really could not be “undone” by any breastfeeding challenge. How wrong I was, and how humbled I’ve become.

My mom is proof that, for some lucky women, picking up breastfeeding really is easy. She told me she never had any problems establishing breastfeeding with any of her three children. However, I think women like my mom are the exception. I think for the vast majority of mothers, breastfeeding (at least in the beginning) is hard. Important? Very much so. Rewarding? Definitely. But yes, also hard.

My son, Gabe, was born with a tongue tie, meaning the membrane attaching his tongue to the floor of his mouth was tethering his tongue too tightly, and prohibiting him from sticking out his tongue, and therefore from nursing correctly. Translation = it hurt like hell to nurse. The very, very first time he nursed, right after birth, he left my nipple cracked and bleeding. The first few days of nursing him were horrible, but at the time I didn’t know why. I cried out in pain when he would latch on. My poor husband wanted to be supportive of my desire to breastfeed, but he didn’t know how to help me, and hated to see me in pain (especially after I had just finished a 28-hour labor). My nipples were raw; it hurt to even wear a loose-fitting shirt. (Thanks to the fact that I was also walking around in a diaper at this point due to heavy bleeding, I looked more like Tarzan than Jane). I ended up pumping and giving my baby my milk in a syringe. Not only because nursing was painful, but because due to Gabe’s poor latch, I feared he wasn’t getting enough to eat. On his 3rd day of life, one of my midwives diagnosed his tongue tie and recommended we consider having it clipped to correct the nursing issue. (In the breastfeeding world, clipping tongue ties is a controversial issue. I don’t think clipping is the right answer for every family, but my husband and I quickly decided that it was the right answer for us). The very next day, we had his tongue clipped, and although it wasn’t all roses, Gabe recovered pretty much immediately afterwards, and within 24 hours, nursing was pain free and his latch was perfect!

That was a huge turning point for me. The fact that nursing was no longer painful was HUGE! My baby was also able to nurse for longer periods of time and more frequently, as he was no longer so frustrated at my breast, so I was freed from the stress that he wasn’t eating enough. By all measures of “breastfeeding success,” things were peachy. And honestly, I do not mean to say they weren’t GOOD – they were! Honest to goodness, getting my baby’s tongue clipped changed our nursing experience for the much, much, much better! After all, Mommy was not in pain and Gabe was eating plenty and gaining weight. But…there were still some things, subtle things, that made breastfeeding feel hard at times.

My baby “woke up” from the standard newborn sleepy phase after his first week, and after that, he pretty much never fell asleep nursing except for in the middle of the night (I sure am thankful for that part!). But out and about, I felt cheated that I didn’t have the “trump card” that other mothers seem to possess in nursing. I couldn’t just nurse my baby and automatically calm him – I joked that my milk was laced with Red Bull because often Gabe would be ready to play (and by “play” I really mean cry) after nursing. It made me feel awful. I felt like Gabe hated nursing, almost as though I was feeding him poison instead of milk. I figured out that swaddling and bouncing were often more effective in calming Gabe than nursing, so that’s what I did (and do) a lot of the time, especially for post-feeding fussiness. Still, I sometimes wonder that other mothers judge me when they see Gabe cry and don’t see me put him automatically to breast or back to breast (I feel like wearing a sign that says: I NURSE ON DEMAND ALL DAY AND MY KID IS HUGE SO BACK OFF!). I thought maybe he had a dairy sensitivity, so I begrudgingly cut dairy out of my diet. After a week, there was no difference in Gabe’s behavior, so I went ahead and added it back in. And his fussiness has improved on its own slowly…I’m no longer convinced that he hates nursing (I learned that he just wants to be burped)…but for a while there, I cried every time he fussed at my breast. It just felt so heartbreaking, even though my big nursing issue was fixed – I still had small issues and they still bothered me. It still felt hard in some other ways too…

It’s hard when you have to get out of the bathtub, or rush through a shower, when your baby needs to nurse (especially when you just nursed ___ minutes ago and they aren’t “supposed” to be hungry yet!).

It’s hard when you just want to not be touched, or have someone ON you for a while, but you don’t really have that option, at least until the bottle is mastered.

It’s hard when your baby wants to latch and de-latch and re-latch constantly (yes, that’s my kid).

It’s hard when you’re trying to figure out how to nurse in public gracefully (no Boppy?!).

I would like to claim this loud and proud: breastfeeding is hard, at least in the beginning. I don’t care that it’s “natural;” it is still a learned skill and often a challenging one. I think telling women it shouldn’t be hard sets them up to feel like failures if they DO find nursing challenging. Is someone a “bad mother” if they don’t get the hang of nursing right away? If they give pumped milk in a bottle on day 4 because their baby will not take the breast? If they, God forbid, give formula because they are tired, and perhaps unaware of resources, and scared their baby is starving? 

Wouldn’t it be better if we said, “I know it’s hard. It was hard for me too. It gets easier and better and even wonderful. Is there anything I can do to help you?” ❤ 

Take heart, mamas. I hope you nurse your babies. It really is so good for them and for you too. But I understand wanting to give it up and I understand actually giving it up too – it’s a huge life change and it is hard to figure out. And at times, it’s a cumbersome reality to live with. But if you make it through the hard stuff, it does eventually make your life EASIER! Baby can be satisfied immediately at your breast, no matter where you are, and you don’t have to do any prep work, clean up, or bring any equipment with you other than yourself!  That has been my experience: really hard giving way to surprisingly convenient. I think it is the nursing experience of many, but whatever your story is and whatever path(s) you choose, I hope you are met with honor and respect. Hugs!

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3 thoughts on “When Breastfeeding Is Hard

  1. So true! It’s totally hard. Sometimes it’s hard. Then it gets easier, then it gets hard again. You get Mastitis and you have to hurt yourself (I used to pinch my leg as hard as I could) so that you didn’t notice the pain in your nipple upon latch. Sometimes enough milk isn’t produced and that’s hard for mommas who wanna breastfeed, but don’t produce enough to keep their babies from starving. So agree with all of this. There really is NOTHING easy about it. You just have to hope that those moments of cuddling and “spending time” (albeit attached at the boob) overshadow the hard stuff. For me, they did. You’re a great momma and I think you’ll be a better doula after going through all of this and being able to share your own hard experience. Love you and Gabe too!

  2. I tell my moms this very thing: nursing is a learned skill, it’s hard work, and it WILL be worth your effort. I was also blessed to have had a breast feeding mother and community. Like you, I thought it was naturally easy. Surprise! I had to work really really hard with my first, and there is no worse feeling than hearing your baby cry and not being able to comfort them! But the work is worth it, and it does get easier.

  3. one of those things we just can’t ‘get’ until we’ve been there… it doesn’t look hard, but i cried more over breastfeeding that first 2 weeks with caroline than anything in the 7 years since!

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