What makes breastfeeding so hard? This is what I wondered when I, pregnant and scrolling, was bombarded on social media with scary breastfeeding stories. I’d swipe away as quickly as possible. What could be so hard about something so natural? Apply baby to breast, baby eats. It should be that simple.
I’m the kind of person who wants everything to be as healthy as possible. Organic only, please. Like all moms, I only want the best for my baby. I had every intention of making sure he had breast milk until his second year. Why give him anything else? I had no idea that I was about to struggle with every aspect of breastfeeding. Even now just the word alone makes me want to throw things.
Very few of my friends have children. The only close friend of mine who does absolutely loved breastfeeding. I expected it to be the same for me.
But it wasn’t.
Breastfeeding is Extremely Involved
After taking a breastfeeding class at the local hospital, it hit me that it would not just be simple and relaxing. Apparently babies feed every 2 to 3 hours?! I was about to become a human cow. A 24/7 all you can eat buffet. I lost sleep that night.
Breastfeeding isn’t something we do openly in American society. I’d never seen it in person prior to trying it myself. We’re given very little support to make it happen, and no paid leave, either. Although the recommendation is that everyone breastfeed until at least 6 months, few women are able to do it.
Yet we also live in a society that tells women that they must breastfeed. That it’s the best nutrition for our babies, and that if we somehow can’t do it, or even worse, choose not to, not only are we horrible people, but our babies are going to be much, much worse off.
Couple that with a formula shortage when my little guy was born and the pressure I felt was immense.
After an easy and enjoyable pregnancy, my labor was a quick, 5 1/2 hour induction. Once he was born, I knew from my class that I needed to get him to the breast within that first 30 minutes. My doula helped me latch him on, but immediately, I knew something was wrong. It really hurt. My baby had come out of the womb thinking he had to bite to get milk to flow.
I remembered from my class that it was not supposed to hurt. I expressed this to the doula, but she just glossed over it. It wasn’t until the next day that the lactation consultant came in and saw that I was having trouble. Though it wasn’t an obvious one, she suspected a lip or tongue tie, which is excess skin in the mouth that makes a deep latch difficult to impossible. The plan was to only nurse on the side that didn’t hurt as badly and to let the other side heal and just pump on it instead. I was recommended chiropractic and a pediatric dentist. I was resistant to both, but still I went home hopeful.
I was up all night that night with a baby on my breast, trying to make it work. I still didn’t understand how to get a deep latch. Now both nipples hurt and I knew that I needed help. My doula knew a lactation consultant who did house calls for the low, low price of $250. My insurance sucks, so we had to pay out of pocket.
She came in with a scale, had us remove his onesie, and weighed him before and after a feed, her face solemn as she delivered the news that he “didn’t get anything.”
Looking back on it, a weighted feed made no sense for his third day of life. Colostrum is never going to show up on a scale – we are talking about teaspoons here.
I burst into tears, clutching my starving baby. He had dropped about 8% of his weight, so the new plan was to get on a pumping schedule, pump around the clock every two hours, and breastfeed him whenever I could stand the pain. When I did feed, I’d pump afterwards, and give him whatever extra milk that I had produced. I was doing what’s called triple feeding.
The next day, at the pediatrician’s office once my milk had come in, I was so engorged that my baby didn’t understand how to latch anymore and was fussing at the breast. They put a nipple shield on me and it worked immediately. I asked the nurse if she thought he had a tongue tie, and without looking she assured me that he didn’t. At the time it was a relief, but I regret that moment so much now. Although the nipple shield gave us a way to keep feeding, it wasn’t effective, did not teach him how to latch properly, and as I later discovered, he DID have a lip and tongue tie.
Despite all of this, he eventually put on weight, and I felt good about the fact that I was able to produce enough milk between nursing and pumping to meet his needs completely. It took him about an hour to nurse each time, so I could only do it 2-3 times per day in addition the all the pumping.
There was about a two week period where I even produced more than he needed and I was able to build up a small freezer stash. I envisioned myself eventually donating milk. I thought we were on the path to success.
Yet I was still in pain most of the time, and sleeping very little. Even to this day, despite trying all the different flange sizes and four different pumps, it always hurts. Since people kept telling me that things just “eventually get better,“ I trusted that by the time he was a month old it was just going to miraculously work. He’d be more mature and he’d just get it.
It didn’t though.
A Month In
Finally after that month and a lot of pain despite the shield, I decided to try a new lactation consultant. She also didn’t take my insurance, but she came highly recommended.
Sometimes we had successful feeds in her office, but it usually took a ton of latching, relatching, and multiple people with hands all over my boobs to get it to work. I usually hurt the next day, and I was never able to replicate it when I got home.
Weeks went by like this. I’d have a good appointment, come home and be back to the same shallow latching, then I’d have to take him off and try again over and over. He’d cry, eventually get frustrated and want the bottle, and then I’d cry too, rejected and failing at breastfeeding.
Thousands of dollars and four lactation consultants later, I was beyond frustrated and still getting nowhere.
They never agreed with each other, there was no standard way to make things work, and every time we’d take a step forward we’d take two back. I never felt like the consultants put me first. The suggestion was always to keep pumping and latching more than I was already doing, but I was running myself ragged and crying all the time.
It did a number on my postpartum depression, and I got so stressed triple feeding that my supply dropped dramatically.
It didn’t help that all I was seeing was those hippie moms on instagram who would post photos on a beach or in the grass with flower crowns nursing their babies. Why did it work for them and not me?
The Tongue Tie and Formula
As we stood in the pediatric dentist’s office to get his tongue tie lasered during his fifth week of life, we had to give him his first bottle of formula. I cried tears of shame.
I hoped the tie release would fix everything and my supply would come back and all would be well.
Except it didn’t work that way. There was still no way to explain to him how to latch deeply. He just didn’t get it.
Ali Wong’s stand-up comedy comes to mind where she talks about how breast-feeding is chronic physical torture. That is absolutely how it felt to me.
Eventually around the 2.5 month mark I finally decided to stop trying to breastfeed and to just exclusively pump instead. I had to admit that this was the first thing in life I’d try this hard at and fail. I was tired of crying, tired of feeling like I was forcing it, and tired of getting frustrated. It wasn’t good for our relationship or for my mental health.
Unfortunately my supply never recovered, despite trying all the supplements, cookies, and teas. I still pump 7x per day, but it’s not quite enough for my baby, who likes to eat 30+ ounces per day. Formula became a relief. It took the edge off of constantly worrying I wouldn’t produce enough milk.
It’s not the enemy. It’s a tool. An amazing tool that we have in the modern age that’s allowing my baby to thrive. Before it existed, given our feeding issues, he may not have made it out of his first month.
I shared the struggles on my Instagram stories and was blown away by how many DMs I received from people who had also struggled. it was in the hundreds.
Breastfeeding is Great, but Formula is, Too
I’d felt like an island up until then. You almost never see in the lactation classes or online that my experience is extremely common. There are plenty of people who never are able to breastfeed, and that doesn’t make anyone a failure or a bad mother. There are plenty of people out there who did everything right like I did, and it just never works. I really wish there was more support for us.
It drives me crazy that new mothers, the most vulnerable group of people I can think of, are told that carrying and birthing the baby isn’t enough. At every turn, we are told all of the ways that we are doing things wrong and I really wish that instead of constantly pushing the breastfeeding narrative, there was more support that said, if you’re struggling, your health is important, too. Just use formula. It’s okay.
When I looked more into the studies on breastfeeding, the benefits, while there, seem overstated. There’s the claim that formula fed babies are sicker, less smart, and more prone to ear infections. There’s a lot of correlation being drawn from the studies, too many of which have not taken environmental factors into account.
When it comes down to it, fed is best. Supporting new moms is best.
I didn’t know how long I would last pumping, especially given that we love to travel. Thankfully wearable/portable pumps exist and I’ve been able to use them to make the process doable. It’s been nearly 6 months now and though I don’t enjoy it — I’m just being honest — I still pump, though on a less rigorous schedule and without triple feeding anymore.
Now my baby is measuring in the 100th percentile for weight and height, and the only thing I can, and should do, is look at the whole experience with pride. I gave it my all. I gave him my all.
It was never the beautiful bonding experience I hoped for, but my son and I cuddle, look in each other’s eyes, and spend time bonding in other ways.
I may always be sad on some level that breastfeeding did not work for me. It feels like a club that I was denied entry to. It feels like an exclusive society that only some people get to be part of. And why not me? Didn’t I want it badly enough? Didn’t I try hard enough? It doesn’t seem fair.
Just like it wasn’t fair that I got pregnant easily. That I had a wonderful and easy pregnancy, and that I had a fast, easy birth experience that I feel great about. It’s not fair that some people get healthy babies and others don’t. It’s not fair that I got to have a child at all and some people don’t. I’m grateful that he’s here, he’s thriving, and that I’ve been able to give him any breast milk at all. It’s a privilege denied to many.
It didn’t and doesn’t look how I imagined, but I am choosing to feel good about what I’ve been able to do. It is still a struggle and a journey, but I have succeeded in my own way.
I hope that anyone out there who is struggling too feels seen reading this. You’re far from alone. I shared this as it’s the kind of article I would have liked to read when I was in the depths of my breastfeeding despair.
12 month update: It felt like time to revisit this article now that my son is almost a year old. I stopped pumping completely when he was around six months and it was a weight lifted off my shoulders. Each person is on their own journey, but I’m happy to share he’s thriving on formula, and I’m doing much better, too. If I could go back and do anything differently, I would have let it be OK to stop sooner, and to shed the guilt. We have enough already as moms, and how we feed isn’t anyone else’s business, anyway.
It’s not easy, and you’re doing great.
I’m doing great, and I should never let myself forget that.