why breastfeeding is so hard

I am done breastfeeding, in all likelihood, forever. But it is still one of the most emotive topics of babyhood for me and every time I hear about a friend or a friend of a friend who was unable to do it because she was somehow misguided along the way, I feel a mixture of frustration and sadness. Not, to be clear, because I embrace unqualifiedly the idea that ‘breast is best’: we can be thankful that, with the help of so many thoughtful commentators, the breast versus bottle debate is now moving beyond the linear simplicity of that particular slogan turned battle-cry.

Rather, it is because what I think is ‘best’ when it comes to babies and milk is for a woman to be able to make an enlightened decision about what is right for her – and her child – with the most information and least regret possible. And so often, it seems, this simply isn’t the case. The bottle is the not the enemy here: choosing the bottle from a platform of confusion, fear or misinformation is.

If we look at new mothers in a Venn diagram, there are always going to be women who choose to breastfeed and who then achieve it with little incident. So too there are always going to be women who choose to formula feed and do that with little incident. These two groups should pose no problem for either health-care practitioners or enquiring onlookers and hopefully each side will enjoy the benefits their preferred milk-source has to offer.

It is the middle section of the circle that deserves our attention: the group of women who want, sometimes desperately so, to breastfeed but who don’t or can’t in the end. To be sure, some of these women or their babies will encounter insurmountable physical and/or emotional obstacles that will ultimately make breastfeeding inappropriate for them. For the others, however, there is probably something more that can be done to help them accomplish their goal. It is not always easy to know, of course, what exactly that ‘something’ is.

I have a vested interest in this particular sub-set. I often look back at my own experience breastfeeding my first child with utter amazement. How, oh how, did I pull through those initial ten weeks? It is all too easy to see that had things been different, even only a little, I might have taken another path. Several factors worked together, I realize in retrospect, to keep me doing it day after day after day: the medical and social culture I lived in, the fact that my own mother breastfed and supported me in the endeavor, a fierce psychological commitment to a cause I didn’t know I harbored. The path not taken wouldn’t have been a bad one. But it also wouldn’t have been the one I wanted and that still matters.

What makes breastfeeding so hard starts with the fact that it is virtually impossible to explain the reality of it in advance. You may never have changed a diaper before. You may never have folded a swaddle with origami-like precision. But learn these things once and you will no doubt proceed through the early days of your baby’s life with enough mastery to get the job done to everyone’s satisfaction. Breastfeeding, on the other hand, promises nothing like a comparable or stable rate of success. It is a continual work in progress, changing daily and weekly as the baby himself changes.

And even if you think you understand the words and the concepts introduced at your La Leche class, even if you were able to cradle the practice doll in a flawless cross-hold position, none of that will mean anything to you. Not, that is, until 2:43am, when you sit propped up in bed with a mountain of pillows and a writhing two-week-old on your lap who is apparently going through a ‘growth spurt’ but who still refuses, for the third time in a row, to clamp onto your red-raw nipple. The answer you are looking for right then, well, it’s not in your notes and it’s not necessarily in your ‘What To Expect’ either.

So nobody can really tell you what it will be like, partly because you won’t believe them and partly because your story will be unique. But here are the three things I wish I knew before that first time I raised a baby to my unsuspecting breast. Knowing them, individually or collectively, wouldn’t have stopped the tears. But it might have normalized what was happening to me and given me a better context in which to make the decision of whether to persevere or not.

1. It is probably going to hurt. A lot. A toe-curling, jaw-clenching lot. A proper latch is very important, but it is plainly false that there won’t be pain even if the baby is attached just perfectly. Sometimes untried nipples are so sensitive that the grip of a tiny and eager mouth alone is enough to leave them feeling battered and bruised. This sort of pain can take weeks – and even months – to subside, but it will go eventually and breastfeeding almost always becomes pain-free and comfortable over the course of time.

2. It is a constant responsibility. Breastfeeding works on a supply and demand basis which means that you have to build your milk supply to meet the baby’s demand by feeding him over and over again. Day and night. For many women, the milk supply is too fragile in the first weeks to opt out of even a single feed. Not having enough milk is often a case of not making enough milk. Making enough milk can feel like a full time job at the best of times and when you are exhausted and recovering from birth it is even more gruelling. Supplementing with formula early on is a very tempting – and sometimes legitimate – option, but it can also be problematic, especially during that no man’s land when you are waiting for your milk to ‘come in’. The best advice I ever got in this respect came from a midwife on day three: today is gong to be hard, she said, the baby is getting hungrier and the colostrum isn’t quite going to cut it, but things will be better tomorrow. Or the next day. Simply knowing in advance that the first phase of breastfeeding is about putting your head down and weathering the storm is half the battle of surviving it.

3. It is an emotional minefield. Breastfeeding mothers tend to be a little crazy. There is a wild swirl of hormones in play and when you combine that endocrinological fact with the pain and the constancy of feeding and the responsibility of always having to do it yourself, the ensuing hysteria is not surprising. You will over-react to things. You will worry that your baby is not getting enough to eat or gaining enough weight. You will scream at your husband for letting the baby sleep too long (or not long enough) and thereby compromising the perfect balance of milk you have just managed to engineer. Life will become for you the spaces in-between the feeds. Prepare for this. Prepare your partner. And then wait until you wean to meet again the saner, though perhaps slightly more bereft, version of yourself.

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17 Comments

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17 responses to “why breastfeeding is so hard

  1. megan

    Great read! My breastfeeding experience from #1 to my twins (#2 & #3) has been so different. I was definitely a grey area mom w/ my first born and went to formula after 3 months. I was never opposed to formula and knew I would use it at some point but I think if I had better guidance – I may have tried a little harder.
    However, this time around for my twins, besides the fact that there are two of them, breastfeeding has been oddly easy and probably the main reason why I’ve stuck with it. If I had chapped nipples, bad latchers, no supply…it would be a different story! I am just now incorporating formula because I can’t “keep up” with two 8 oz milk drunkards.
    The last line speaks volumes because I just don’t understand how crazy I’ve been and reading that helps. Even with easy breastfeeding, how out of whack I am emotionally and physically is what is taking a toll. Besides just mastering the mechanics of breastfeeding the anxiety of timing, having only so many hours or minutes till your next feed can make a girl crazy!
    For example: today at my oldest son’s birthday party I walked around with one insanely engorged painful breast and could barely hold a normal conversation because I just wanted to wake one of my twins and force feed! 🙂
    You are a great writer Lauren!

    • i love the description of your different experiences, megan, thank you for the comment. it is remarkable and heartening to hear a mother of twins talk so positively about breastfeeding them. even the ‘easy’ version here is a HUGE undertaking. and you sound pretty damn sane to me, all things considered!

      • megan

        Easy may not be an appropriate word for anything relating to motherhood – so I’ll change that to managable. And sane I am not.. surviving, yes.

  2. Emma

    I’ve been lucky enough never to have any pain from breastfeeding (excluding engorgement and blocked ducts), but I cannot agree more with your post. I’m into the fifteenth week of EBF (without a single feed off due to my daughter screaming bloody murder every time a bottle of expressed milk comes near), things are going well, and I seem to have more than enough supply. Despite all this, I still moaned at my husband this morning after he left our daughter to sleep forty minutes later than her usual feed, and the tears threatened to make an appearance as I read your last paragraph. Proof enough that I’m walking the narrow ridge between sanity and insanity:)

    The difficult thing for me is that there’s no standard learning curve with breastfeeding. Sure, it gets easier to fix previous problems as time goes by (or at least to understand or recognise them), but new problems can crop up seemingly out of nowhere (I have a distracted drinker on my hands right now), which makes it difficult to ever feel entirely comfortable and confident. In addition, not only do my baby’s drinking habits change as she develops, but I also see my own behaviour and routine altering as she gets older. Gone are the days attached to my pillow mountain on the coach (thankfully!), but long lunches outside the house bring their own, new breastfeeding challenges (especially with a distracted infant).

    As someone who likes to learn something and then progress to the ‘next level’, breastfeeding continues to be a unique challenge. Luckily, there is also a lot of joy to be found in sharing the lessons of this learning experience with my daughter. Neither of us consistently get ‘top marks’, but the satisfaction of her milk-drunk, almost conspiratorial, smiles is reward enough.

  3. Valerie

    This is a wonderful post!! I agree there isn’t enough information of how it will “really” be. I don’t think it’s an ordeal to prepare for (I have had 3 wonderful experiences with my children), but I do think that women should know what to expect. I think some of the reason for early switching is because there is the knowledge that if things don’t go well, you *can* end it and start using formula, which makes it not quite worth the pain and effort (for some). It’s a bit like marriage today, I think. People know they can divorce if it doesn’t “work out”. If they couldn’t, they’d work a lot harder to choose the right mate to begin with, and then they’d work really hard to keep the relationship healthy! Not to say all marriages are meant to be forever (abuse, as an example), nor is breastfeeding right for all women and situations, but the benefits to both mother and baby are just too great too give up easily, in my humble opinion. 🙂

    • Philippa

      Sorry, Valerie, but as you say yourself, you had three wonderful experiences. So you just don’t know what it is like to be unable to breastfeed. Believe me when I say that I did not give up breastfeeding early due to insufficient effort or unwillingness to suffer pain. It’s incredibly hurtful and insulting to those of us who were forced to abandon breastfeeding to read comments implying that we possibly made a decision based on the knowledge that there was some easy way out. The subtext here is that if we’d just tried a bit harder, or longer, then our babies would have benefited. The analogy with divorce/lack of implied commitment is particularly unhelpful. Please, just be grateful that it worked out well for you and don’t second-guess other people in this way.

      • Valerie

        I’m sorry that I offended you.

      • Valerie

        I’m not sure why you think I was attacking you. I wasn’t referring to you when I said *some* since it is quite obvious that you DID work your hardest to continue. I was praising your post, not finding a way to be offensive to you!! :/ There ARE women who stop early for the reasons I said, but in no way was I implying that I was talking about you. I wouldn’t have commented to put you down. Again, I’m sorry that I offended you.

    • hi valerie, that comment wasn’t from omnimom, the author of the blog, but another reader. i really appreciate that you liked the post! i think breastfeeding is such a challenging topic to talk about meaningfully and honestly without offending anyone: it is so full of emotion. and in the same way it is very hard to explain the realities of breastfeeding to someone who hasn’t done it, so too i imagine it is difficult to describe to someone who has had a relatively smooth ride how certain obstacles, in a certain context, become insurmountable. sometimes we won’t get the words right (i have another post on this site where i took a slightly different stance, and i’m not sure i got the tone right there either), but we need to keep trying and to keep educating each other about our different experiences.

      • Valerie

        OH!! Well, good! I was trying and trying to see how I could have been offensive to you, but I couldn’t. I do understand how it could have offended someone else, but that wasn’t my intention either. 🙂

  4. Jennifer

    Breastfeeding can be amaziningly challenging. I had easy pregnancies and easy deliveries, but my children could not latch. The first time I gave my daughter formula, I cried. I worked with a consultant. She referred me to a physician to correct my daughter’s tongue-tie, but it was too late. At the end of the day, with my daughter, the best solution was pumping. So I pumped until I bled, with a limited milk supply. With my son, I fought the hospital to insist that I get a consult regarding my son being tongue-tied before I left the hospital. His condition was worse than that of my daughter and required surgery at 9 months to correct. This time, the consultants gave me little hope. Once again, I pumped, still with a limited milk supply, this time with a boy who ate twice as much as his sister. Like another commenter, please don’t judge because you may not know the whole story. I would have loved to have breastfed my children. I think one of the three (pregnancy, labor, breastfeeding) is meant to be easy (my friends with better breastfeeding experiences seem all to have had had delivery horror stories). I’d go for a hard delivery anyday in exchange for a better experience breastfeeding.

    • thanks for sharing your experience, jennifer. it never ceases to amaze me how incredibly difficult breastfeeding can be and in so many different ways. there is no judging on my part, i know first hand of its challenges! i like the idea (for fairness’ sake ;)) that one is bound to stumble upon obstacles somewhere in the trifecta of pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding. and I suppose we should try to appreciate the fronts on which we had it ‘easier’, right?

    • Gabriella

      My son also was tongue-tied; no one noticed it at the hospital, and since I expected nursing to be painful I soldiered on for five weeks until I could bear the pain no longer. We went to a lactation consultant, Jane Bradshaw of Lynchburg, Virginia, who diagnosed a tongue-tie and a lip-tie. My son had the two operations within a week (for which time I switched to exclusive pumping), and gradually, over the course of the next three weeks, things got much, much better. But it was very hard at first.

      I’m surprised your son had surgery at 9 months; I thought the surgery became more, not less complicated, as time went on, because it’s easier to immobilize a newborn without anesthesia than it is to immobilize a bouncing baby. (Our son was just swaddled very tight for his operation.)

      It seems that hospitals used to check for tongue-ties and lip-ties routinely, but now no longer do so.

      omnimom, we have similar backgrounds: I’m from New York, and I studied at Yale, UCL, and Oxford! I’m trying to learn Ancient Greek these days.

      Thanks for your blog.

      • Thanks for writing in, Gabriella: I want to hear more about your time at Yale and Oxford and now learning Ancient Greek!

      • Gabriella

        I majored in English at Yale, and did an M.Phil in English at Oxford. But in the meantime I became an amateur Latinist, and a few years ago I began to study Greek. I’m still very much a beginner! Many of my friends at Oxford were classicists—maybe they were your friends too!

  5. I appreciate you saying this, because it seems like a lot of people talk either about how amazing it is, or how horrible it is (e.g., if you get mastitis or have to cut out many foods because of the baby being sensitive), without the in-between difficulties. The emotional side of it, in particular, was one that I didn’t expect. There was a point in the first week, when my milk was still coming in, when my daughter wasn’t sleeping much and just wanted to be on the breast all the time–I was sore, I was sleep-deprived, and when my husband tried to take her for a little bit so I could get some sleep and came back five minutes later saying she was hungry again, I punched the wall because I was so frustrated. A couple weeks later, we hit her first growth spurt, and I got really upset because it seemed like all she did was eat and I had no privacy whatsoever. Once I got past that, she and I developed thrush, and we’re off to get that treated today. It’s getting easier (aside from the thrush), but I wasn’t expecting for my emotions to be all over the place about breastfeeding, and to feel like I might not want another kid because I don’t want to breastfeed again (I also don’t want to be pregnant again, but that’s another story).

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Anna, I completely agree with you. The emotional part of breastfeeding is so powerful and so under-explored. Or rather, if not under-explored, it’s that it is not spoken about as much. Part of the reason, though, is because it is very difficult to explain in theory! I hope things are going smoother for you now. I will say that I found breastfeeding much easier with the second baby. Not only was it less painful, but I did it differently with him (more on a schedule than on demand) and it was a wonderful experience! Feel free to get in touch if you want to discuss any of this further. Wishing you the best!

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