For that group of people, breastfeeding doesn't just have its physical challenges: finding the right positioning; keeping your milk supply high but not so high that you experience engorgement, leaky boobs, or, worse, mastitis; getting through the never-ending cycle of breastfeeding and pumping and sacrificing sleep for it; and, obviously, all of the aches and cracks and blisters that your nipples go through in the first six weeks or so. But breastfeeding can also just be mentally draining.
If it's something you want to do but it's not coming easy or it might not ever happen at all, it can take a lot of mental fortitude to work through the emotional pain and stress that follow — and not blame yourself, when you're doing the best that you can. Unfortunately, this aspect of breastfeeding just isn't talked about as much.
There's tons of articles out there on the magic of breastfeeding and breast milk, but not nearly as many widespread examples of how tough — or impossible — breastfeeding can really be. Nor that it's not the be-all and end-all and there are plenty of mothers who know from the beginning that breastfeeding isn't for them. We should be celebrating all of these things. We should also be sharing as many insights as we can so new mothers will know exactly what they can expect from breastfeeding, if that's something they hope to do.
That for sure would have helped me mentally and physically prepare for how difficult breastfeeding would be. (My baby — my first — is now seven months old and still breastfeeding, but I didn't think we would even make it to six weeks in the beginning.)
In the spirit of spreading awareness about how damn hard breastfeeding can be, here are some insights, tips, and tricks for anyone on a breastfeeding journey.
1. When your baby is born and how they're born can determine their ability to feed.
Every baby is not born with an equal ability to breastfeed. In fact, babies born before 37 weeks might not be able to breastfeed or even bottle-feed at first.
2. There are not only tongue ties to worry about but upper lip ties as well. And the procedures to fix them can take a lot more healing time than you'd think.
Some babies simply aren't able to latch because of a tongue tie or upper lip tie, but a routine procedure — a frenectomy, which some pediatric dentists perform with a laser — can really help. Midwives have actually been doing this for "hundreds of years" but the problem and solution aren't as widely talked about as they should be. Just know that the recovery is different for each baby: Some babies are able to latch immediately after and others could take a month to properly breastfeed after it. My baby was in the latter category and had a longer recovery, but he eventually got there.
3. Build your team.
For any mother who wants to breastfeed but finds it doesn't come easy, it really can take a village. So it's critical to surround yourself with experts who can help. That can begin at the hospital, where many have lactation consultants who will pop into your room after birth. (In some cases you might have to request a consultant more than once. I delivered at a major hospital in Los Angeles right before the pandemic and I still had to ask four or five times to see one because they were so in demand.) Hospitals can also provide postpartum support. The lactation consultants on staff can assist you after with telehealth appointments. But know that not all lactation consultants can get you breastfeeding with no issues (more on that below). In addition to a lactation consultant — if you're able to afford it — a postpartum doula can be the most wonderful thing. Not only do they help with taking care of the mom, rather than just the baby after birth, they often have breastfeeding tips and tricks they've picked up. They also have a network of midwives and lactation consultants to get advice from as things come up. Then there's mom friends and, now, virtual mom groups. It can be the most wonderful thing having other moms in the same stage of the newborn journey to consult with. You can pick up a lot of hacks there too. Lastly, know where to find solid info online. Kelly Mom is an excellent resource for breastfeeding and pumping.
4. Not all lactation consultants are the best fit.
Lactation consultants are like therapists; they can be good at their jobs but just not be right for you. You might have to try a few before you find the one that can help you, and that is totally okay. I personally took a prenatal breastfeeding course led by a lactation consultant (which ended up giving me advice that I had to unlearn), chatted with two different lactation consultants at the hospital, and almost gave up until my doula connected me with my incredible now–lactation consultant, who is practically family now. What I learned from working with her in my postpartum journey is that she and other lactation consultants actually offer prenatal consultations to help you predict any issues you might run into and how to troubleshoot that. That would have been a lot more helpful than the generic one-fits-all (but actually doesn't) class I took.
5. Get the proper tools.
Breastfeeding mostly comes down to a good latch, but using the proper tools can help you get there. If you're hoping to breastfeed, maybe you already know to get a solid nursing pillow. I ended up loving the organic MoonWomb pillow, especially because it can be used to support your baby bump and, later, for tummy time as well. What's not as frequently mentioned is that a stool can really help a ton, and you can get one that doubles as a toddler stool.
6. Not all bottles are created equal.
Something new moms usually only learn after they're into their breastfeeding journey is that there are special bottles for breastfeeding. Slow-flow bottles are critical to helping your baby avoid bottle preference (although it can still happen even with them and that's totally normal). Dr. Brown's bottles with preemie nipples helped a lot in this regard. Also, if you're working on getting a good latch, you might want to hold off on the bottle until breastfeeding comes easier. During those first six weeks, syringe feeding can really help.
7. There's a science to syringe feeding.
If you want to try syringe feeding, there is a method that helps your baby work on their suction while you feed them. You tap on your baby's bottom lip to get them to open their mouth, insert your finger (index or pinky works well, depending on your finger size) so it lands on the roof of their mouth (just like where a nipple would) to get them to initiate sucking, and then you use a special syringe to slowly trickle in drops of milk, emulating the rhythm and flow of breastfeeding. Let them suck for a few seconds before releasing the milk (to mimic a letdown) and then trickle it in. (A letdown is when your body gives a big release of milk.) This syringe works well because of its curved end, which you gently keep in the corner of their mouth.
8. A good nursing chair is really worth it.
It's definitely not essential — there is the couch and the bed— but a solid nursing chair can be incredibly helpful. You could be spending 12 hours a day here in the beginning, so your comfort is essential. The Paxton Swivel Glider at Pottery Barn Kids was the comfiest and best-looking one I ended up finding.
9. Your body will ache a lot for the first few months, probably.
Between the postpartum healing and the contortions you might have to put your body through to breastfeed in the beginning when they're so tiny, there is a lot of uncomfortable moments. But breastfeeding can definitely get easier as they get bigger, and you don't have to hunch as much.
10. Breastfeeding and/or pumping will hurt every time you do it in the beginning.
Your uterus is still contracting from birth, and breastfeeding and pumping will help it contract back to its original size. In the process, you will get what feels like strong period cramps and bleed a lot. There is so much blood. I never knew how much those pee pads they give you at the hospital would come in handy when I got one. I kept a handful of fresh ones next to my nursing chair and would frequently switch them out in the beginning.
11. The nipple pain is real.
That's not to mention the pumping-caused nipple pain. A lot of nipple pain can be due to a bad latch or pumping injuries, but, anecdotally, a lot of moms end up experiencing this. Nipple cream can help a lot. As can experimenting with flange size and going up a size if you have pain or a blister.
12. You will feel like you're stuffing a melon into their mouth in the beginning.
Please watch this clip of Kristen Bell explaining the physics of breastfeeding a newborn. The part about it being like "stuffing a melon" in their mouth is so accurate. You will probably look back at photos of your tiny newborn once they're older and be amazed that they ever fitted your boob into their mouth.
13. Listen for the swallows.
One downside of breastfeeding is that, unless you're doing weigh-ins before and after feeds, it's nearly impossible to know how much milk your baby is getting. So definitely listen to their swallows and the rhythm of their sucks. Try to see how many letdowns you get — when their rhythm is closer to a suck-swallow-suck-swallow, than just a suck-suck-suck-suck-swallow.
14. Get a good playlist going to help you relax.
Relaxing leads to letdowns and sometimes putting on a playlist of music you love or just relaxing ambient sounds — ocean waves has been a big hit in our house — can help you let go of tension.
15. It gets easier!
Going through the hormonal surge and physicality of the postpartum period is one of the hardest things to deal with. Then add struggling to breastfeed on top of that and it's just so, so much. If you have the energy and it's not weighing on you mentally, and if you're really set on making it work, try to give yourself a full six weeks to see if breastfeeding is for you or not. When it clicks, it truly happens overnight.
16. Know that you can quit at any time! Seriously, you can quit any time.
"A fed baby is a well-fed baby," and people say that for a reason. Because it's true. Do whatever is best for you and your baby, and whatever is best for your mind.
17. Once it gets easy, it probably won't stay easy.
It pains me to report that once you "figure out" breastfeeding, it doesn't stay figured out. There will be ups and downs with every new leap the baby takes, or change at home, or change in your own mood. It is really a rollercoaster, like every other aspect of parenting, but as long as you savor being at the top, you can try to remember that each low won't last forever.
18. Try all of the positions and keep trying all of them.
It really changes as they grow. Lying down might not work in the beginning, or it might be the only thing that works — but that could totally flip-flop. Likewise for crossover and the football hold. Here is some info on breastfeeding positions.
19. Distraction is real.
There's a reason that "niplash" is a term: It's probably not a question of if but a question of when your baby will turn their head while still latched because something suddenly distracted them. The distracted phase starts when they really wake up to their surroundings. For us, it was a big challenge between three and five months, but really peaked at month four. Go slow. Be patient. Let them guide you. Be prepared to nurse more frequently. A muslin blanket can also go a long way to help, if you drape it over them and your shoulder, or let them hold a soft toy while they feed.
20. It's okay if one of your boobs is an underperformer — and if your boobs are different-sized.
You are not alone if this is you. In fact, a 2007 study from Breastfeeding Medicine: The Official Journal of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine found that "milk output is often greater from the right breast." It can help if you offer the underperforming breast first at the start of every feed and equally.
22. Your health insurance should pay for a pump.
Before you buy your own, if you have health insurance, check with your provider to have them cover the cost of a pump. Since former president Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act went into effect, "Your health insurance plan must cover the cost of a breast pump. It may be either a rental unit or a new one you’ll keep."
23. Replace your pump parts every 6–8 weeks.
If you are relying on pumping to feed your baby and fuel your milk supply, it is imperative to replace the pump parts. Because when they stop working properly, your milk supply could suffer. The valves and the backflow protectors tend to go the fastest. It also helps to replace the tubing routinely.
24. You can still get your period while breastfeeding.
Don't believe the myth that you can't get your period while breastfeeding. Seriously. When it comes back varies for everyone, because everyone's body is different. But it could be as early as when your baby starts sleeping through the night if you end up pumping less during that period. The more you feed/pump, the more prolactin your body makes. And the more prolactin, the less chance you'll ovulate. That said, definitely don't think of breastfeeding as birth control because you can still get pregnant while breastfeeding!
25. Try to get in the bulk of your baby's calories during the day.
Speaking of sleeping through the night, if you're sleep-training your baby while breastfeeding, you might want to shift their eating to only awake times. Fueling them up for the night can help everyone get better sleep. Once they’re ready to sleep through the night, try to get all of their calories in during the day. Definitely consult your pediatrician before trying it.
26. The amount of breast milk they need won’t really change right after you introduce solids.
Even after the baby starts solids, the amount of milk they're consuming before their first birthday doesn't really change. It isn't until they turn 1 that they can switch to animal or nondairy milk, depending on their need.
27. Breastfeeding can be really meditative.
Quiet time, and especially quiet alone time, is hard to come by when you have a baby. But once breastfeeding becomes routine — at least during those easy periods — you can use the time to meditate. Focus on your breathing, feel your baby breathing, take deep breaths from your belly, and try to clear your mind and let go of tension. The more you work on it, the easier it gets. Of course, don't expect that every breastfeeding session will be like this! But savor the ones that are.
28. Hot showers, heat pads, massagers, and a little shimmy will help you maximize your milk output.
If you're sleeping longer stretches at night, you really want to empty your breasts as much as possible before getting into bed. It can be really relaxing and helpful to take a hot shower before that last pump of the night, or even put a hot compress on your breasts right before. There are other things you can do to help your breasts fully empty: It might feel silly but a shimmy can help get blood flowing to your breasts and bring on letdowns. You could also try a lactation massager. These will all help you make the most of your final pump.
29. There will be days when you feel like a milk machine and that is valid.
Your breasts are giving life to your baby, and, yes, this is temporary. But there might be moments when you feel like your boobs don't belong to you anymore. There is definitely some sadness in that. Don't be afraid to honor that and let yourself feel everything you're feeling.
30. It really is a full-time job.
Breastfeeding, pumping, is a full-time job on top of being a mom and just being you. In fact, you might spend even more hours a day on breastfeeding and/or pumping, in the beginning, than you do at your job. It will truly boggle your mind when you add up the number of hours a day you put into this.
31. Your nipples might lose elasticity and feel cartoonishly large.
You will probably have to change flange sizes at least once. And if you're still pumping at five months, you will probably have to readjust throughout pumping. When you lose elasticity in your nipples, they go deeper into the flange. But you can get silicone inserts that prevent them from going too far. Pumpin Pal makes a good set.
32. You will be the first to know when the first teeth pop through.
Try not to react when it happens, pull off immediately, and end the nursing session.
33. Really, you can quit at any time!
You're doing the best for your baby and that's all that really matters! Give yourself the credit you deserve.