Breastfeeding might not be something you gave much thought to before finding out you were pregnant, but it’s likely very present in your mind now. If you plan to breastfeed, you’re probably stocking up on nursing bras and tops, nursing pads, and a pillow designed to prop your baby up as you feed them. Maybe you’re researching breast pumps and lactation consultants or reading up on how to increase your milk supply.
You could read everything available about how to breastfeed your baby and buy all the products available to help you through the process, but the truth is, there is a lot nobody tells you about breastfeeding. For something so natural, it can be very complex, and for something so fundamental, it can come with a lot of conflicting emotions.
One thing you can count on, however, is the support of moms like you who have gone through breastfeeding and are willing to offer their thoughts and advice.
In your own words…
We asked you what one thing no one told you about breastfeeding that you wish you’d known. Here’s what you had to say:
“It's beautiful but not always easy! Don't beat yourself up if you don't love it and struggle to make it work.”
“Even if you’re doing it right, it will burn like 🔥 when they latch on for about 2 weeks while everything gets “broken in”. All my kids were great nursers, but it hurt every single time. … time is the only thing I’ve found [that alleviates this]. Nipple cream helps but you’ll still feel it. It lasts for a couple seconds right when they pull the nipple into their mouths. It’s toe-curling at first (mine usually starts on day 2-3) but slowly gets better and is usually gone after 2 weeks. And since it’s not a corrective problem, you just have to grin and bear it.”
“That it’s ok if your body doesn’t produce. You’re still an amazing mommy! No need to feel guilty or ashamed about it.”
“I'm glad my [lactation consultant] was good. I already had a feeling I was going to have to supplement and it broke my heart because I felt like a failure. She said that it's more common than we know and she even had to supplement her 3 kids. I felt better. We still supplement and she's thriving now.”
“It’s not easy. But don’t give up and most likely you will work it out together with your little one!”
“It’s a long learning process- ask for support and help- it doesn’t just happen like in the movies.”
“Breastfeeding is fantastic, but pumping is not at all the same. But if it's worth it, keep doing it!”
“Cluster 👏 feeding 👏 🥴”
“Clogged ducts and the amount of hours into pumping there really is 😭”
“It can be really hard to wean. Harder than I ever thought it could be. Worth it but definitely didn’t realize how hard weaning could be when you want to be done. No one ever prepared me for that.”
“Babies can have tongue ties and it shreds you until you figure it out!”
“It’s NOT every 2-3 hours 😂”
“It’s whenever they need/whenever it feels right which will usually be within 1-1/2 hrs”
Preparing for breastfeeding in the first few days
Once you begin breastfeeding, it can feel isolating whenever it doesn’t “work” the way you expect it to. Knowing what to expect and remembering that you’re not alone can help combat some of the emotional toll of breastfeeding early on.
The first few days of your baby’s life can be especially challenging. You’ll be physically recovering from delivery, sleep deprived, and prone to hormonal mood swings while estrogen and progesterone levels drop and prolactin and oxytocin levels fluctuate, to name some of the biggest hurdles. Your baby may need some help latching properly, which can intensify the pain for you. Even with a proper latch, it might take a few days (at least) to get used to the nipple pain. Have some nipple balm handy in case of chafing, and be prepared to meet with a lactation consultant to ensure a strong latch and comfortable positioning while nursing. Even if things go well early on, it can be reassuring to meet with a lactation consultant before leaving the hospital.
Another breastfeeding-related pain in the early days that isn’t often talked about is uterine contractions, also known as afterpains or involution. These sharp cramps as your uterus begins to contract back to its pre-pregnancy size can be very painful, and they often feel worse while nursing. This is because the contractions are triggered by oxytocin, which is released during breastfeeding. These afterpains also seem to intensify with each delivery, so you’re more likely to experience pain if this is not your first baby. You can use a heating pad or pain relievers to combat the pain. Do what you can to keep yourself comfortable, and don’t hesitate to contact your healthcare provider for any questions or concerns. The stress caused by pain can impact your let-down or milk supply, so it’s worth taking care of yourself to ensure your baby gets what they need.
Finally, be ready to breastfeed often in the first few days, especially once your milk comes in, usually between days three and five (before that, you’ll mostly be producing colostrum). Try not to get attached to the idea of feeding every three hours, as it may be closer to every two hours. If your baby is showing hunger cues, feed them. Waiting for the three-hour mark could prevent you from producing the right amount of breastmilk for your baby, as their frequent hunger signals your body to produce more.
Most importantly, keep in mind that breastfeeding is a learned process that can take time. If you want to breastfeed but are struggling early on, work with your lactation consultant or medical provider to do what you can to stick with it.
Preparing to breastfeed for the long haul
While formula can meet the basic nutritional needs of your baby, and the most important thing is that your baby is fed, the American Academy of Pediatrics does recommend exclusively feeding infants breastmilk for the first six months of their lives, with ongoing breastfeeding in addition to appropriate food for at least the first year. The longer you are able to breastfeed your baby, the better you can protect them from certain illnesses, and the more benefits you’ll experience in your own health.
That said, you’ll want to be prepared for the possible ongoing or new challenges to breastfeeding over time, including:
- Leaking: If you breastfeed, you could potentially find yourself with leaking breasts. If your milk lets down before you’re able to nurse or pump, the milk could end up in your bra or clothing. A nursing pad is a simple solution to this annoyance.
- Low or decreasing milk supply: As we’ve covered before, approximately 10 to 15 percent of moms report a low milk supply, and more experience a drop at some point (usually when they return to work). Consider a Bamboobies lactation support drink mix to help boost milk production.
- Engorgement: On the flip side, some mothers make more milk than their babies need. If you don’t fully empty your breasts – either through nursing or pumping – they could become engorged. They may be painfully full and firm, and you might even experience a slight fever or swollen lymph nodes in your armpits. You can combat engorgement by softening your breasts with a warm compress before feedings, nursing or pumping more often, taking pain relievers, or applying a cold compress to reduce swelling. Bamboobies soothing therapy pillows can offer either warming or cooling relief and are made with super-soft rayon made from bamboo and flax seeds.
- Blocked milk duct: If you don’t fully empty your breasts, or if a milk duct is otherwise clogged or plugged, it can lead to a blocked milk duct. You might notice a hard, painful lump, and your affected breast may become engorged. The best way to clear a blocked milk duct is to continue to nurse, giving more attention to the breast with the block. Because blocked milk ducts are typically caused by improper drainage of the duct, your best bet is to drain the clog out. You can also use a warm compress or warm water to help soften the built-up milk. If you don’t get the blockage out, it could lead to a more painful complication like mastitis.
- Mastitis: Among the most painful challenges for breastfeeding moms is mastitis, an inflammation of breast tissue that often leads to pain, swelling, warmth, redness, and sometimes fever. Mastitis usually requires medical attention and antibiotics to treat and can either lead to more painful breastfeeding for a while or to weaning off of breastfeeding altogether.
Despite the potential challenges and pains that can come with breastfeeding, it can be a deeply rewarding experience, allowing you to bond with your baby in a way nobody else can while boosting their immune system. Just keep in mind that if you struggle at any point in your breastfeeding journey, you are not alone, and help is available! You’ve got this, and you have a whole community behind you every step of the way.
Healthline: Your Guide to Postpartum Recovery
Today’s Parent: Involution: How to deal with postpartum afterpains
VeryWell Family: Coping With the Stress of Breastfeeding
Motherly: Breastfeeding your newborn: Your guide to the first week of nursing
The New York Times: How to Breastfeed During the First 2 Weeks of Life
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Choosing an Infant Formula
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Breastfeeding: Frequently Asked Questions
The New York Times: How to Deal with Low Breastmilk Supply
Healthline: Can Power Pumping Increase Your Milk Supply?
University of Michigan Health: Breast Engorgement
Healthline: How to Identify and Clear a Clogged Milk Duct
Mayo Clinic: Mastitis