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When Breastfeeding Isn’t Easy

I felt like a failure because I couldn’t do it and I desperately wanted to breastfeed

Breastfeeding grief

“I came home from hospital with C-Man on day five, and ended up with bleeding nipples the very next afternoon. I fell apart emotionally when C-Man had blood running out of his mouth. By coincidence, the midwife called right at that time so she had me crying on the phone. She was so nice and suggested I stop breastfeeding for at least 24 hours to give the nipples a break so I expressed for about 36 hours until the midwife came to visit a few days later. It was a really emotional time, I think I cried from Sunday afternoon until Tuesday morning.”

Breastfeeding Challenges

I’m at my wits end with this nipple pain. It’s been a whole month of pain now and I don’t know what to do.

The anguish of breastfeeding difficulties

The things that made it hard

When I read back through my notes from the early days of breastfeeding, a few big things stand out – my desire to breastfeeding because I believed it was the normal and natural way to feed a baby, my misconception that breastfeeding would be easy, the conflicting advice I received, and the pain and subsequent emotional upheaval I went through. Let’s have a look at my notes…

  1. “Because I didn’t get to have a vaginal delivery breastfeeding is the only natural thing I get to do with him and it’s really important to me. I will be COMPLETELY devastated if I can’t breastfeed.  As well as the benefits for the baby, it’s just such a natural thing I want to do from my core – especially because I didn’t have a vaginal delivery – I will be absolutely gutted if I can’t – and because I’m so stubborn, I will keep persevering through this pain and hopefully it might get better!”
  1. “I never knew that breastfeeding was so challenging! I’ve seen so many other women feed and it seems so easy. If I didn’t realise there was professional help I probably would have given up too because of the pain, and then I would have been an emotional wreck for a long time about it.”
  1. “Last week I was told by Child Health I had nipple thrush. Yesterday morning the GP said I had nipple vasospasm. Then the lactation consultant said she didn’t believe I had either. The differing opinions has just completely done my head in! She agreed I have some new damage (blisters – oh how lovely!), but couldn’t figure out why because the latching on was fine. I just wanted a quick fix – some medication or something to take the pain away because I am so over it! But no – I have to persevere and maybe it will stop at some point.”
  1. “I’m still torturing the poor child because sometimes it takes 4 or 5 attachments to get it right so he doesn’t like having to come off all the time when he’s hungry! It’s really starting to hurt a lot again (different hurt to the cracked nipples though), so I’m not sure what’s happening. When C-Man’s latched on he really pulls his head back hard so it feels like my nipple is going to be ripped off and I don’t know how to stop him. I’m at my wits end with this nipple pain. It’s been a whole month of pain now and I don’t know what to do. It’s so painful – at my worst, C-Man will be screaming and I’ll be bawling and just cuddling him because I can’t bear to have him go on! There must be light at the end of the tunnel – maybe if I wasn’t so tired I might see it!! I think the really long feeds were really draining me – physically and maybe emotionally. I just wanted them to end. The pain was awful, and went through to my back – straight through the breast into the back – and it was so tiring. I have absolutely NO pain in my right breast – and it’s actually enjoyable (never thought it would get to that point!) but the left is painful – sometimes pretty bad – during attachment and then eases and is very comfortable. Now that the feeds are shorter and pain free, I’ve really felt more bonded to him in the last couple of days – and just can’t stop cuddling him afterwards, whereas before all I wanted to do was put him down because I was so tired from feeding.”

5. “I sat there feeding last night with tears running down my face and I don’t want this to be a negative experience for me, or C-Man, because I’m sure he senses the negative vibes. I think I know what I’m doing wrong (moving his head towards the breast), but I panic when he’s in a frenzy and won’t latch on and is waving his arms around and shoving his fists in his mouth and I can’t hold his body, my breast, and his 2 arms all at the same time, and he’s screaming his head off. I need to learn how to manage that. For most feeds today C-Man goes about 10 minutes then fights the breast, crying and wrapping his tongue around the tip of my nipple and not latching on.  It ended up with me in tears tonight because I thought he was hungry and I couldn’t feed him.” 

So, where did this leave me?

The two most common breastfeeding problems that mums hear about is not enough milk and mastitis. I didn’t have either. But I did have a whole bunch of other problems that are not commonly discussed amongst mums. Initiating breastfeeding with my first baby was one of my biggest challenges. It turns out I had cracked and bleeding nipples, nipple thrush, nipple vasospasm, a fast flow causing attachment issues, and an oversupply of breastmilk which caused lactose overload in my baby. Phew. That’s a lot! 

In many cases, this would mean early cessation of breastfeeding, but I weaned my baby when he was 15 months old. So other than my stubbornness and perseverance, which all come down to my personality, what else got me over the line? Support, support, support! I now know that support and correct information is what helps mums successfully breastfeed for as long as they and their baby wish. For me it was support from my husband, my mum, my sister and a couple of friends. I also had support from health professionals, albeit confusing and conflicting, it helped me navigate my way through. 

Key takeaways from my breastfeeding experience

  1. If it hurts, there is something not right with the attachment.
  2. Find support from those around you. If you don’t have anyone in your direct life, seek support from breastfeeding experts or find other breastfeeding mothers. 
  3. Seek as much information as you can from reputable sources. Attend an antenatal breastfeeding class and join the local breastfeeding support group in your area.

Final Thoughts

I believe that breastfeeding is the normal way to feed human babies, but it is a learned skill. The covering up of babies whilst they are breastfeeding, combined with the declining rates of breastfeeding in the last number of decades has meant that our first time mums sometimes don’t have exposure to breastfeeding, or the village of support that once existed. We don’t have our elders teaching us how to do it. Therefore we must rely on breastfeeding experts, International Board Certified Lactation Consultants, workshops on breastfeeding issues, or leading authorities in breastfeeding like the Australian Breastfeeding Association to provide us with the correct information and support. Finding a breastfeeding support group can be crucial for some mums, and something I wish I had found when I was going through all my difficulties with C-Man. It would have certainly helped to realise I was not alone and that it would get better. It doesn’t necessarily take the physical pain away, but it eases the emotional pain. We all need that kind of support. 

When breastfeeding works