breastfeeding

Real Talk: Breastfeeding a Newborn Can Be Hard & Painful

public breastfeeding

via iStock

In an article for the Huffington Post last week, Catherine Pearson  wrote about extreme breastfeeding pain that arises either from a poor latch, a tongue or lip tie, or many other problems that can come up in those first weeks of motherhood.

It’s a fairly common and fairly excruciating phenomenon that doesn’t get discussed much in the space between lactivism and the lactivism backlash. Here’s her own story (ow):

“When my own son was born two years ago, I struggled enormously at the start. Despite seeing two different lactation consultants in the hospital and dragging myself to several breastfeeding classes, I effectively had two open wounds for nipples by the time I left the hospital. I spent the first weeks of my son’s life walking around shirtless because I couldn’t stand anything touching my skin, dipping my nipples into a salt solution to try and stave off an infection (I still got one) and quietly sobbing through feedings hoping that no one would notice how unglued I’d become. I saw more lactation consultants, went to support groups and read like a fiend, but nowhere did I find anything that seemed to speak to what I was going through. Resources like Kellymom and La Leche League, which were lifelines to me in so many other ways, talked about early breastfeeding “soreness” or “short-term discomfort,” not “a tiny-person-will-chow-down-on-your-bleeding-cuts-for-hours-on-end-and-it-will-hurt-more-than-unmedicated-labor” misery. Was this something other new moms endured through some kind of stoicism or magic that I lacked?”

Also last week, a raw and honest Instagram from “MamaClog”about mastitis and other severe breastfeeding problems received lots of media attention. “Nobody taught me that breastfeeding could be painful, nobody taught me what a good latch looked like,” she wrote in her heartfelt post.

This is mastitis. After hitting the 1 year breastfeeding mark last Sunday I felt compelled to share my story. Breastfeeding did NOT come easy for me. My milk came in after 5 days. I wasn’t aware that it could take that long, I didn’t even necessarily know what “milk coming in” meant. (Nobody ever taught me.) I was the only mother breastfeeding on my ward. One women did try to breastfeed, but switched to formula after 12 hours because she “had no milk” (nobody taught her either.) While the other babies slept with full bellies, my son screamed and cried attached to my breast through the night. (What was cluster feeding? Nobody told me) When I got home, problems started to arise-my nipple literally cracked in half. I have never felt such pain, I dreaded every feed, but persisted with tears in my eyes until I was healed. (Nobody taught me that breastfeeding could be painful, nobody taught me what a good latch looked like) When feeding my son out in public I would either go to the bathroom or pump at home and feed him with a bottle. Because I felt embarrassed and as though I would make others uncomfortable. This resulted in clogged ducts and engorgement. (I feed freely in public now, and have done for a long time. Fuck this backwards society!) Then came mastitis. I remember waking up at 3am shivering, putting on my dressing gown and extra blankets and trying to feed my son. The pain. It was excruciating. I was shaking and sweating but freezing to my bones. At 5 am I woke up my boyfriend and told him I thought I needed to go to the hospital. We got my stepdad, a doctor, he took my temperature and said it was slightly high, but to take a paracetamol and try and sleep. 7am comes, I’ve had no sleep, and now I’m vomiting, he takes my temp again. 40 c. I had developed sepsis overnight. This was because I was not able to recognise the more subtle signs of mastitis (as I had seen no redness that day) I was rushed to resus, given morphine, anti sickness and the strongest antibiotics they could give, and separated from my baby for two nights. I was Heartbroken. Continued in comments…

A post shared by MamaClog (@mamaclog) on


Last month, photographer Leah DeVun’s photo series, “In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” (photos here) spotlighted women and their breast pumps and freezer bags of milk, reminding us, in her words, “how many aspects of pregnancy, delivery, and breastfeeding didn’t come naturally at all, and how this stirred up complicated emotions — mothers often were disappointed in themselves for failing to meet our societal demands for a certain kind of effortless or heroic childbearing experience.”

There’s a reason these stories and testimonies keep showing up online and being shared. Despite all the content about nursing that seems informative, many people feel like they’re in the dark when they start their journeys. Like many other aspects of pregnancy, birth and postpartum care, each nursing situation is unique. But the reality is that breastfeeding a newborn often ranges from unpleasant to sheer misery to even, in cases where mastitis goes unrecognized, dangerous.

This is complicated, because women need to understand that unpleasantness is to be expected so they can be prepared, but they also need to recognize that extreme pain and and infection are also possible—and a reason to get help. Most of all, we need to establish the idea that that there is no “normal”  or “natural” and that pain, discomfort, or struggles are not a reason to feel guilty.

Even for those of us (I’m one of the lucky ones) who don’t have significant latching or supply problems and are able to nurse from the get-go those first months are murder, in the words of a pal who texted me while feeding her second kid (with no real problems): “This early breastfeeding is murder.”

I have two words for you: cluster feeding. Then there’s the fussiness that sets in after a month. There’s pain and sleeplessness and soreness. The bonding part of breastfeeding, the nuzzling and snuggling and baby hand-touching-face stuff, tends to develop later on, after the hormones have subsided and the wounds of childbirth healed, the supply-demand relationship is established and the danger zone for mastitis and other issues (somewhat) subsides.

So if you’re pregnant right now and thinking about breastfeeding, here is the real talk: Chances are early breastfeeding will be hard. It will take work, and adjustments. It may hurt a little, or a lot. But if it’s so hard that you’re in horrible pain, or spiking a fever, or you’re suffering, reach out as soon as possible to a doctor, lactation consultant or postpartum doula.

And whatever you do decide to do, don’t feel guilty.

Nursing may end up being worth it for you, and it may not, it may feel “natural” and it may not, it may be your ultimate choice and it it may not— but if you do go forward with it and struggle, know that you’re not alone.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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