Before I started breastfeeding I was told that if I was doing it right, nursing wouldn't hurt. I took comfort in this concept because smug, inexperienced me was convinced that I was going to be one of those natural, mother-Earth baby goddesses who would take to motherhood like a duck to water. I just knew I'd be great at breastfeeding. Then I had a baby and realized there were some things I wish I'd known about nipple pain before I started breastfeeding.
First of all, the idea that if you're "doing it right" nursing won't hurt is laughable at best. I mean, what an absolutely absurd thing to say! Come on now. You're honestly telling me that going from regular nipple usage to an infant inexpertly chomping on them every hour or so for the foreseeable future isn't going to at the very least irritate your nipples? Seriously?
I will tell you this right now, and as an extremely pro-breastfeeding advocate: if you choose to breastfeed your baby, you will almost certainly experience some nipple pain at some point (and probably most of it early on). Certainly there are things you can do to mitigate or even eliminate that pain and you shouldn't write off persistent, toe-curling hurt every time you feed your baby as "normal" or the "price of doing business." But in nursing two children for quite some time I've learned a thing or two, and some of my anecdotal, maternal wisdom might be useful to keep in mind.
It Happens Even If You're Doing Everything Right
After I had my second child I knew the whole "breastfeeding won't hurt if you're doing it right" thing was nonsense. I had 17 months of breastfeeding under my belt at that point, knew what I was doing and had zero problems, and my nipples still hurt for the first few weeks because of course they did.
It's Worse If You're Doing It Wrong
Yes, some amount if nipple pain is to be expected even under the best of circumstances. Sometimes, even if you're doing everything right, it can nevertheless be brutal. But generally there are reasons why breastfeeding is extremely painful and there are often things you can do to mitigate that pain. Getting the right hold, proper latch, and checking your baby for tongue or lip ties can all go a long way to making breastfeeding easier and less painful.
It Can Be Excrutiating
It's like you're lactating glass and your precious baby's gums are a bear trap. And often this isn't an all-the-time situation. Sometimes it's just that your baby latches wrong or your breasts are particularly full and the letdown is extra sensitive. Or, when you're getting the hang of things and your body is getting used to this new and constant endeavor, it really, really hurts. It sucks... no pun intended.
It Usually Isn't
Even when it hurts on a regular basis, it's not always the worst pain. Honestly, when I was nursing my second child the contractions hurt more than the breastfeeding.
Oh, did you not know that was a thing? Yeah, it's a thing. You have contractions while you breastfeed for the first week or so as your uterus shrinks back down to size. It's more noticeable the more kids you have, too. Thanks, nature.
Lanolin Is Your Friend
I didn't know about lanolin until after I'd been breastfeeding my child for a few weeks. It's a wool-derived cream you can put on your nipples to soothe them and is safe for your baby to be exposed to. I was very, very grateful to that stuff once I started using it.
Pro-tip: this will not be a good idea if you have a wool allergy. Because then not only will your nipples hurt they'll also itch like hell.
Neither Heat Nor Cold Will Help
On the one hand, this feels like it would be obvious because, under typical circumstances, nipples are sensitive to either. But on the other hand, whenever I tell my doctor or mom or someone that something hurts, the advice I get is either "heat," "cold," or "alternate between icing it and using a heating pad."
This is not good advice for sore nipples in my experience, just FYI.
The Entire Boob-Region Is Going To Hurt
I'm so sorry to be the one to say this, but it's not just the nipples. As your body gets used to breastfeeding, the entire landscape (boobscape?) is going to hurt on and off. Engorgement is its own little hell (that, incidentally, doesn't help with nipple pain since your baby can't get a great latch when you're super engorged). It's all pretty tough.
Don't Buy A Ton Of Nipple Cream
Don't spend a lot of money on nipple cream because, well, you won't always need it. Your nips will get used to things. Often a tube, maybe two, will do it for you since a little goes a long way. There's no need to stock up... as I did. Live and learn, I suppose.
It *Usually* Gets Better
Not for everyone, not all the time but generally speaking, after you get over an initial period of pain and learning and painful learning, things settle into normalcy and it doesn't hurt anymore. That's not to say it never hurts again (because there's always a chance for some pain... hello mastitis, my old friend), but it usually won't.
It's Worth It
Certainly I can't speak to everyone's experience, and only you can know what you're up to and if you're not up to breastfeeding, on account of pain or anything else, that's totally cool and you need to listen to your heart and body (especially your aching nipples).
But in my (admittedly not terrible) experience, the pain I felt in the first few weeks (and the sporadically thereafter) was outweighed by the benefits I felt my baby and I gained from breastfeeding.