I enjoyed breastfeeding, but breastfeeding was really difficult. Even under the best of circumstances (and my circumstances were good) breastfeeding can be a huge challenge that, unfortunately, comes at a time when a new mom is bombarded by a million other challenges. There were a lot of hard truths about breastfeeding I wasn't ready for, to be honest, even after reading all the books and doing all the research and asking all the questions.
You can't know what you don't know. And even when you do know what to expect, there's no substitute for the knowledge that comes from direct, first-hand experience. But not only do new moms lack first-hand experience, we lack a lot of second-hand experience most new mothers throughout human history would have had watching their mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins, and neighbors breastfeed — formula wasn't invented until 1865, so back then it really was "breast is best, because there's literally no other viable way to sustain an infant."
This lack of first- and probably second-hand experience means that a lot of new moms are on this journey largely on their own, stumbling along, finding out what works, and coming across a whole bunch of uncomfortable truths along the way. I certainly did. Here are just some of the things I came to discover in nursing my children:
It's Not Magic
Don't get me wrong: breast milk is pretty magical, in that it's a whole-nutrition food source for your infant that your body just makes. That's pretty awesome!
But before I started breastfeeding, and even for a while after I'd begun, I bought into the idea that breast milk was far superior to infant formula. I didn't think formula was bad, but I thought it was nowhere near as good. And, I'll be honest, sometimes I would get a little smug about it.
Turns out, a growing body of research shows that this assumption is just not supported by science. According to lactation expert Dr. Courtney Jung, when you factor in income and education, many of the purported benefits of breast milk over formula are negligible.
"If it hurts you're doing it wrong," oh so many people told me. "Breastfeeding shouldn't hurt at all! It's natural."
Yeah, well, so is a snake bite, jerks.
Look, generally, speaking, once you get used to it over the course of a few weeks, breastfeeding probably won't be painful. And if the pain continues to be excruciating there very well could be something wrong. (Always feel free to talk to your care provider!) But I don't know that I've ever met anyone who hasn't experienced pain when they start breastfeeding. Any low-traffic area that suddenly turns into a high-traffic area is going to be a bit worse for the wear until it's conditioned to deal with its new circumstances. Your calves get sore after you start running, your nips are going to get sore when you have an infant chomping away on them every two hours.
It Doesn't Just Come Out Of One Hole Per Nipple
OK, maybe you all knew this but I sure as hell didn't, and I was floored. I always assumed every nipple had a hole breast milk came out of. Nope! There's an average of nine milk ducts that bring milk to your baby through the nipple, according to BabyCentre.
You Will Almost Certainly Not Get Enough Support Or Instruction
Even in hospitals that provide access to lactation consultants, their time (and yours) is limited. And you can't learn everything you need to know about breastfeeding over the course of a couple days.
After the birth of my first, I only got to see the lactation consultant twice during my five days in the hospital. And while she was really cool and helpful, I still left for home basically clueless. How can I even know what to ask when new things are coming up every day?! For most breastfeeding parents, there's a whole lot of muddling through for the first few days, weeks, and even months. Sadly, for a lot of us, that can lead to ending breastfeeding before we're ready.
Babies Don't Know What They're Doing, Either
You have one job, baby. How hard can it possibly be to eat and get nice and chubby? I assumed you'd be showing me what to do!
Babies are not going to be our tiny breastfeeding guides through this journey. We need to teach them to do things, too, like latch and nurse long enough to get hindmilk and burp. And we have to teach them all that when we absolutely have no idea what's going on, either. It's the clueless leading the clueless.
Breastfeeding Breasts Get Enormous
I am not a small-breasted woman under normal circumstances. So when I got pregnant and started popping out of my already sizable bras I thought "Well, they can't top this."
They did. They did top that. They would top that every damn day if I went more than an hour and a half without nursing. If I slept for more than a couple hours? My God.
They Get Rock Hard
When milk builds up in the breast--because you've gone for a while without nursing, or if your baby is not "emptying" the breast enough during feedings--it's called engorgement. Engorgement makes your breasts bigger, which I suppose I could have guessed, but I never could have guessed that they would be solid. It was like having two giant boulders strapped to my chest. I don't know what I thought engorged breasts would feel like--maybe sloshy? They are full of liquid, after all! But no. Rock-hard and absolutely no fun at all.
It's A Massive Time Suck
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the first days of a breastfed baby's life, you can expect to feed them every one to three hours. In the first weeks and months, you can stretch it to every two to four hours. So, any way you look at it, your baby is going to be eating frequently. And by the way, this is from the start of one session to the start of another. So if you start feeding a baby at one 1 p.m., and it takes 20 minutes to feed them, sometimes you'll only have another 40 minutes before you have to feed them again.
It takes a lot of time to mentally adjust to basically living your life to feed someone else. Honestly, I wasn't ready for the negative toll it took. You measure time and accomplishment differently and it can be really demoralizing. In my experience talking (to my partner, care provider, and other new moms) really helps.
Babies Pinch & Bite
Breastfeeding is often described as a serene, beautiful, bonding experience, and it can be. But it can also be a time during which your baby explores their sadistic side.
Maybe not at first, but after a while they discover their hands (which are covered in impossibly sharp little nails like OMG how are they so sharp) and they will claw the crap out of your boobs because they like touching their food source, I suppose. They also might start biting the nip that feeds them when they figure out they can (or, as was the case with my daughter, when they start teething).
Clogged Ducts & Mastitis
A clogged duct (which I really didn't know about before I began breastfeeding), is when fat from breast milk coalesces in your milk ducts and blocks anything else from coming out. (This is often due to baby not really eating enough, but it can just sort of happen from time to time.) This is the worst. Your boobs get all swollen and if you don't unclog the duct (hot compresses or feeding your baby on all fours and praying to the god of gravity to help you out), you may wind up with mastitis, which is a resulting infection of the breast and is Hell on earth.
I've experienced both. I was not ready either time. Nothing could have prepared me.
Lactation Doesn't Stop Just Because You're Having Sex
It's kind of a 24/7 thing. And very often, when lactating breasts are touched, they go into, "Oh! Is that the baby?!" mode and are like, "Here! Here is all the milk!
So sex can get, ummm, milky. And while some people have no problem with it (and there's no problem with it, honestly — it's just another fluid in a rather fluid-filled act) other people don't like to be reminded of their children while they're having sex, and that's just what lactating breasts can do. Talk about it with your partner and, if needs be, there's always bras and nursing pads to keep the two worlds compartmentalized.
Everyone's Getting Judged At Some Point
I figured, if I could breastfeed my baby, I would be doing it "right" and everyone would agree I was doing it "right" and no one could judge me.
The motto for parenthood should seriously be: "Brace Yourself: You're Going To Be Judged." Because everyone has their own definition of "right."
Any Judgment You Had Beforehand Flies Out The Window
It can be easy to judge someone, or feel like you know what's best, before you've "walked the walk" and really know what you're talking about. Theoretical parents are always the best and most confident.
"When I have a baby, I'll never..."
"Well my kid is going to..."
But real life is considerably more difficult and allows us to see all the shades of gray between the black and the white. If we're self-aware, that preconceived judgment will, or should go out the window pretty quickly, but that doesn't mean the newfound humility is easy to swallow.