Painful Breastfeeding as a New Mom
I want to share my story with new and expecting moms about painful breastfeeding, because I wish I had known more about it before I started breastfeeding. While not all new moms find breastfeeding painful, there are many who do, and this story is for them.
Breastfeeding Challenges: Feeling Like a Failure as a New Mother
The first couple months of trying to breastfeed were more difficult than I ever could have imagined. Prior to that first week of breastfeeding, I had always assumed breastfeeding would happen naturally and easily. And while my baby and I eventually figured it out, it took a couple of months and was a difficult journey!
Physical Breastfeeding Pain
While there are a number of challenges that breastfeeding can pose (eg issues with latching, milk supply, etc), for me the issue was that it was painful. My nipples were sore, swollen and cracked those first few weeks. I dreaded breastfeeding. I felt like a little shark was biting into me every time my baby latched. I would cringe as I did my very best to continue letting him feed.
Emotional Breastfeeding Pain
Because things were not going smoothly, I felt like a horrible failure as a new mother. I distinctly remember this feeling hitting me in full force one night in the hospital just a day or two after Orson was born.
I went to take my first shower post birth, and I was really looking forward to it. Showers have always helped me reset and feel refreshed. Unfortunately, as soon as the water hit my chest I felt an electric jolt run through my body. The force and sting of the water hitting my sore nipples brought me to tears.
In that moment, everything felt impossible. There were likely other factors contributing to this feeling (lack of sleep, general physical discomfort, postpartum hormones), but all I could see was how I was already failing as a mother.
Reaching a Breaking Point with Breastfeeding
During our hospital stay post-birth, lactation specialists were frequently visiting our room and offering advice and encouragement. Their tips and tricks on positioning and latch were somewhat helpful, but I was still dealing with ongoing nipple pain. I was feeling demoralized and frustrated.
Some of the nurses watched me breastfeed to make sure Orson was latching properly, and they all said he was doing just fine. It didn’t feel fine though, and I started to wonder what was wrong with me since no-one else seemed particularly alarmed by my situation.
A couple of nurses recounted their own experiences with breastfeeding and said that over time my nipples would toughen up. I finally reached a point though, where I didn’t feel like I could continue trying to breastfeed. This felt horrible, but I just couldn’t do it.
Alternatives to Breastfeeding
I wish I had asked for support from the hospital staff about alternatives to breastfeeding. I found that the nurses in the hospital were reluctant to discuss other options, such as pumping or nipple shields. My guess is that they are supposed to push a new mother to establish a breastfeeding relationship, but I still found it odd that even with all of my complaining that other options weren’t discussed. And I think being in a somewhat vulnerable and overwhelmed state after having my baby, I wasn’t in a place where I was asking questions or advocating for myself.
When I realized no one was going to recommend pumping, I just went ahead and did it. Even pumping was painful, but it was manageable. I still wanted to get back to breastfeeding at some point though (set up and cleaning pump parts gets old and time consuming, and for me felt very mechanical), so I scheduled a lactation appointment for a week after leaving the hospital. Luckily I ended up seeing a lactation nurse, Olga, who had an approach that worked very well for me.
I also bought some formula in case I needed it as I was figuring out the pumping and my supply was working itself out. I think it can get somewhat ingrained in anxious new mothers (at least for me it did) that breastmilk is the only good option, but nourishment is nourishment and formula is a great option.
After hearing many of the lactation nurses in the hospital encouraging me to continue breastfeeding despite the pain, Olga took one look at my nipples and exclaimed they were extremely swollen. She said that I needed to exclusively pump for a couple of weeks so that they could heal. I felt such validation in that moment and was so thankful for her.
Back to Breastfeeding: Tools and Resources
Additional Lactation Support
Olga and I ended up having a few more sessions together, and by the end I was breastfeeding my baby with minimal pain. Once my nipples started to get less swollen, she helped me plan a schedule to alternate between pumping and breastfeeding until I could leave out the pumping altogether if I wanted.
Olga also gave me a couple of nipple shields, however did not recommend them as a long term solution as they can increase risk for developing mastitis. I did use them though the first few times of breastfeeding again after pumping. I think they helped me psychologically more than physically. I developed some fear around breastfeeding after those first few weeks of pain, so I felt like I had a little protection wearing the shields and was able to relax when I tried breastfeeding again after my little break from it.
This guidance and gradual return to exclusive breastfeeding was so helpful. Had I continued to try and exclusively breastfeed from the beginning though, I may have given up altogether. Olga also gave me her pro tips on latch that made all the difference as well.
A Good Nursing Pillow
Along with the help of Olga, I had the help of “My Brest Friend” nursing pillow This pillow was a game changer! I stopped using it after about 4 or 5 months as Orson got bigger, but it was absolutely essential for me in the beginning.
I truly do not know if I would have stuck with breastfeeding without the Brest Friend nursing pillow. It made positioning much easier. And when you are spending hours and hours day in and day out (and night in and night out) breastfeeding a newborn, you want to be comfortable and you want it to be easy.
The pillow wraps around your belly, clips closed and provides a nice supportive platform for baby. It is flat and goes right up against your belly, keeping baby snug against you. Other nursing pillows taper down as they hit your belly, which can leave a space for baby to sink down into. This can make it difficult to have a tiny newborn at the right height relative to your nipple for a good latch.
Friends and Family
I share this story because I want new mothers to know that they are not alone or failing their babies in any way if they are experiencing breastfeeding challenges.
Since going through my own struggles, I have talked with a number of friends who also had difficulty for various reasons with breastfeeding. It is more common than you think! I found it helpful to hear what they went through and what helped them. Additionally, I was thankful that they were there to listen.
My husband was also an amazing source of support. Bringing me anything I needed while I was breastfeeding and listening and talking with me about what was going on.
Developing Your Own Feeding Plan
There are many ways to nourish our babies that do not involve breastfeeding. There are women who exclusively pump, or use formula, or do a combination of both. Or who breastfeed when they can and pump or use formula the rest of the time. It’s really all about what works best for you and your baby.
For a while I thought that I would be exclusively pumping, and this would have been perfectly fine! Or if I had chosen to do formula for my baby instead, this would have also been fine!
There are so many ways to provide for our babies. Good job to all the mamas and papas for doing what they need to do, how they need to do it.
Share Your Story About Learning to Breastfeed
If you would like to share your story about painful breastfeeding, please share in the comments below.