Before having your first baby, breastfeeding is probably high on your trepidation checklist. Sure, it’s a magical act of bonding between you and your baby. But it can also be stressful, or painful, or both! In theory, placing your baby at your breast seems simple enough. Women have been doing this since the beginning of time, right? Breastfeeding is “natural.” It’s what our bodies were built to do. But in practice? It can be really, really, (and I want to pause for good measure here…) really hard.
Let’s talk about the reality of breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding can be both the best and the worst, for a variety of reasons (which may be different for every mother). Maybe you escaped this period of motherhood without incident, and loved every second. Maybe you didn’t breastfeed at all, either by choice or due to a medical issue. Or maybe you did, but struggled.
This judgement-free post is about the breastfeeding struggle.
First, breastfeeding is a deeply personal experience. Your breasts are, well, yours. But when you choose to breastfeed, they also become your baby’s food supply. You enter into the experience with an intention, perhaps a strong one, and you are forced to adjust as your body and your baby decide what your breastfeeding relationship will be.
I had my hopes. I wanted to breastfeed, if I could, for at least a year. As a first-time mom, I had no clue what to do though. So, I read about breastfeeding. I watched some videos. I went to a class. I committed myself mentally to breastfeeding.
After my son was born, and the nurse quickly encouraged me to feed him, I was elated that he latched easily. I had friends who struggled with latching, and I saw how frustrating that can be. I saw the tears first-hand with my sister, when she was in pain. I was so grateful my son and I were off to a good start though. Phew.
Shortly after returning home from the hospital, my son began to fuss and cry a lot.
I know, babies do that. But something seemed off. We fed often. Like, glued-to-the-couch often. It wasn’t until about four weeks postpartum that the pediatrician noted my son had been losing weight. He had fallen from the 48th percentile to the 12th percentile. I was strongly encouraged to supplement with formula and start pumping. I was disheartened. All of this time and energy, and breastfeeding wasn’t working for us.
I felt incredibly anxious. My baby’s only food supply, only lifeline, was me. And it seemed I wasn’t making enough milk to keep him thriving. I asked myself what would have happened before milk donations or formula. I shuddered.
I felt like my body was failing us. Was I doing something wrong?
The pediatrician gave us a recommended plan, and I felt foolish to turn down that advice. I was certainly no expert. We began to supplement. Almost immediately, I noticed that my son became more settled. He fussed less. He slept better. He began to gain weight. And I, being both stubborn and determined, began a rather aggressive plan to build my milk supply, because my original intention to breastfeed remained.
I met with a wonderful lactation consultant several times (in retrospect, I wish I had met with her from the start). She thought my son was likely burning more energy trying to feed than he was taking in from each nursing session. I hadn’t realized that was possible, but I supposed it made sense. I pumped between feedings about six times a day to build supply. And so began the exhausting cycle — breastfeed, pump, rinse, repeat. Over and over, ad nauseam.
I drank the lactation tea. I ate the lactation cookies. I took the fenugreek pills. If an article was written on what helped build milk supply, I read it. I tried every suggestion. And they worked, a little. But not enough. I still had to supplement. The lactation consultant didn’t know what to say. I did everything I could. It just was what it was.
I decided to continue supplementing while I breastfed and pumped to give my son every bit I could, but I felt deflated. The seemingly endless physical commitment was taking a mental toll too. For me, breastfeeding wasn’t painful. There was no engorgement, no mastitis, no cracked or bleeding nipples. There just wasn’t enough milk, despite my every (and near constant) effort.
I didn’t really mind breastfeeding itself. But pumping? That robotic contraption meant to simulate your experience with your baby, was nothing but a giant (albeit necessary) pain for me. I hated it. When I went back to work and pumped multiple times a day, the mental cost increased. Somehow I was supposed to feed my baby while working full time. This was a joke, right? I felt guilty being away from my baby. I felt guilty not working during my pump sessions. I was pulled in every direction AND sleep deprived beyond measure. Because, oh yeah, I had a baby.
Hey, you know what hurts your milk supply? Stress!
At ten months postpartum, I caught a nasty stomach bug that destroyed what was left of my milk supply. I thought of all the hard work that had gotten us to this point. And I thought of my son, healthy and content, now sleeping almost twelve hours a night (hallelujah!) My son had shown disinterest in nursing for a couple week anyways. It had been ten months of struggle, and I made the decision. It was time. And I was once again elated. It feels somehow controversial to admit this, but I felt free when I knew breastfeeding was done. Liberated.
My journey with breastfeeding was over.
For some reason, we tend to keep the topic of breastfeeding close to the chest (pun intended). As I said, it is a deeply personal experience. You start with an intention, but the reality can throw you a hard curveball. If you’ve read this far, I imagine you’ve experienced some breastfeeding struggles of your own. I think struggle is a more common factor in breastfeeding than we moms often admit. When you’re in the middle of this struggle, and want to feed your baby, it can feel isolating. Maybe we isolate ourselves because we fear judgment. I did. But a good friend reminded me that I wasn’t alone. She said that I wasn’t the first to struggle, and I certainly wouldn’t be the last. And that little reminder was a really big comfort.
So, please feel free to share your breastfeeding story, whether short-lived or extended, in the comments.
Because while it may seem simple, and even if it is in some ways magical, it can be really, really hard too. Instead of judging how someone feeds their baby, realize that you don’t know their story or their struggle. Applaud that sleep-deprived momma for doing everything she could to have a thriving baby. Because at the end of the day, that’s really all that matters. The rest is just details.