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!