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“If it hurts. . . “

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I am not a breastfeeding expert.  I’m a novice if there ever was one.  I’ve breastfed one child after bottle-feeding three.  I will say I’ve learned a lot since it didn’t seem to come easily for me and my baby.  I read books, blogs, and met with a friend who was also a lactation consultant and had multiple appointments with a pediatrician/lactation consultant in my pediatrician’s office.  So here’s what I think it’s really important for a woman who is preparing for breastfeeding to know- it might hurt.

In the preparatory reading I did before actually breastfeeding I read a lot of reassuring statements that said something along the lines of, “If it hurts, you’re doing it wrong”.  The implication was that pain could be fixed by simply repositioning your baby or finding the magic lactation consultant who would immediately see your issues and help you fix them.  This did not end up being my experience.

I had multiple issues that ended up contributing to my pain problem.  None of them were easy fixes and NONE of them were related to improper technique.  In short- it hurt and I wasn’t doing it wrong.  I think the idea behind reassuring women it isn’t supposed to hurt is to take away the fear they might experience prior to breastfeeding.  I think it is also helpful for women who are having pain to know they might be able to do something to fix it.  The problem comes in when it communicates to women who are experiencing pain that it’s probably their fault.  This is not a pleasant idea.  When you’re already crying through the excruciating pain of 40 minute feeding sessions that happen every two hours, the last thing you need is guilt on top of it.

I also think while the people saying it shouldn’t hurt are usually breastfeeding advocates, they may not realize they’re contributing to women thinking they should quit breastfeeding.  Everyone says it isn’t painful, so if it’s painful for me, then why should I keep doing it?  I’m thankful I had both a pediatrician and a professional lactation consultant advise me that if I needed to quit because of the pain, it was okay.  They validated that the pain was real and might not be fixable.  They gave me small goals to work towards (Can you make it another week?  Can you make it until the end of flu season?  Can you make it until he’s six months?).  They encouraged me for doing what was right for my baby even though it was hard.  But they also told me I wasn’t a bad mother if I needed to stop.  They talked to me about my needs being important too and about how it wasn’t good for my baby to have a mother who was struggling in this way.  I’m forever thankful for them.  I think it was precisely that understanding and support that helped me keep going all the way until Joel’s first birthday.  It released me from the pressure.

I am also thankful for what I’d like to call “the breastfeeding underground”.  There was a secret society of women that told me in hushed whispers that it had been hard for them, too.  Maybe they didn’t make as much milk as their baby needed or maybe like me it was an intense pain issue.  I am so thankful they told me it was okay that I was struggling.  It was okay that I didn’t enjoy it and it didn’t feel natural or beautiful.  It was okay, and I was strong, and we could keep going.

If you are a woman who considers herself a breastfeeding advocate, I want to encourage you to have a lot of grace for the woman who is talking to you about pain.  You may not be able to identify with what she’s going through and how it colors her experience of breastfeeding.  We talk about the positive benefits of breastfeeding on bonding, but how do you think bonding is challenged by the child causing the mother pain during each interaction?  In that case breastfeeding may actually be a hinderance to the forming of a close attachment.  We may want to think we can solve this problem for our breastfeeding friends, but sometimes the greatest help is just listening without offering what can sound like judgement to a mother who already feels she’s failing.  Be a support and encouragement to the struggling breastfeeding mothers around you by counseling them to get help when they need it and to look at breastfeeding as a series of small goals- each day and each feeding is a blessing to your child and sometimes you need to just take it a day at a time.  The mother in pain doesn’t need to be thinking about a year commitment, but just about making it through the next feeding.

So let me encourage you too, Mama who wants to give up.  This is a beautiful gift you can give your baby.  Pain is temporary, but the nutritional benefits of breastfeeding may last a lifetime.  Find ways to help you cope- eat chocolate while you breastfeed, watch your favorite tv shows, have your husband rub your feet.  It’s a tough time, but you’ll be shocked at how fast a year goes by.  You can do it!

 

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14 Comments

  1. It was painful with my first child, but no pain with my second child. They are 5 1/2 years apart.

  2. I counted down to the first birthday every. single. time. I kept nursing (and pumping since I worked full-time) but I really didn’t enjoy it. While it is nice to be needed, its VERY inconvenient to be the only one providing food for your little one. I did it because I knew the benefits outweighed my inconvenience. That and the cost of formula is so high, I don’t know how we would have been able to afford it! I guess that makes me part of the underground. 🙂

  3. Same experience for me as the commenter above. With my son it was VERY painful. He would take what seemed an eternity to feed. I cried from the pain and after 3-4 days of crying a couple of weeks after he was born, it dawned on me that it all had to do because of the bf. I finally accepted that it was too painful for me and that something had to be done. I started supplementing with formula (which I felt guilty about…at the time). The breastfeeding eventually got a lot better but I still had to supplement because of low supply.
    With my daughter, it was awesome. Little to no pain at all. It was a way more pleasant experience (obviously ;). Had to supplement with formula with her too because of low supply.

  4. It was super painful for me for awhile at first. I’m talking, cracking, bleeding, toe-curling, brace-yourself-but-the-tears-come-anyway painful, for weeks. It was a combination of issues (nothing I was doing “wrong,” but things that I could work on to make better), and fortunately we got it figured out eventually, and went on to then have a very easy, long-term nursing relationship. But the beginning is rocky. I was always making short goals for myself, then pushing them out further (Make it to 6 weeks, then 3 months, then 6 months, then a year, then 18 months, then 2 years…).

    • Thanks, Bethany! I really do think those short goals are the key, especially during those first weeks when quitting seems like a really great idea.

  5. I am a very straightforward person and I was blessed to have a VERY close friend of mine (who has the same personality–who will ‘give it to me straight’) to tell me to expect it to be really hard for the first little bit and to stay committed to it, because ‘this is what women did for the entire length of the earth, before formula’. I was grateful for that, it didn’t terrify me, but made me realize that it was hard for (probably) most. I’m not a fearful person, I’m a controlling one, and I wanted to know exactly what to expect. Hah!
    I had two pretty different breastfeeding years with my two children, the second one was actually more painful-longer-than the other. My daughter had a ‘short tongue’ which normally they clip in the doctor’s office, so her tongue can ‘get longer’ and suck better. Her tongue was so short, they couldn’t even clip it. That was tough but she was such a chunky baby I didn’t think much of it after her 3 month mark. With my (older) son, the pain actually came when I had let-down. No one told me about the let-down sensations, that it can feel warm/painful/etc. or you can just feel nothing. I would have very painful let-downs for the first 6 months, which is so strange to think back to, now.
    Sarah M

    • I also had the cracking/bleeding experience, too, with my first and remembered that with both of my babies, my TripleNipple prescription was worth it’s weight in gold!

      • Oh my goodness-yes! That cream is magical. I got really close to building an altar to that tube when I finally got the prescription filled 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Sarah! Joel had a tongue issue, too. It took long enough to get diagnosed that he had developed some “bad habits” he couldn’t figure out how to break. Rough. Stuff. I’ve wondered if women before the advent of formula made more use of wet nurses or family members who could nurse when they couldn’t. I think we used to be more communal about it then we are now. I haven’t done the historical research, but just imagining that maybe women even before formula may have had to be problem solvers about this was comforting to me.

  6. It was painful for me too. Always really hard at first. I think our poor breasts just aren’t used to being treated that way.

    • I always wished I could just skip the first few months when bf is getting established and jump in during month 4 or 5 when the pain is gone and everybody knows more if what they are doing. I’m proud of you for sticking with it but I would’ve been proud of you if you didn’t.

      • Thanks, Jenny. I kept waiting after that 4 month mark for things to get better. . . sometimes the hope that someday it will improve can sustain you all the way up to 12 months 🙂

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