Nothing I've done in my life was harder than trying to breastfeed my first son. Full stop. Hence, this is a breastfeeding judgement-free zone. Switching to formula was the best decision I made for my baby and myself, and I fully support any mother who does the same. When breastfeeding works, it can be wonderful. But let's be clear: Breastfeeding does not work for everyone. It's time we start acknowledging that in the discussion instead of pressuring new mothers to keep trying "no matter what." Thankfully, there are some signs that breastfeeding might be hard for you, and none of them make you a bad mom.
Before my oldest son was born, my hope was that I would be able to exclusively breastfeed for at least six months. That is, until I actually started breastfeeding. Things went well in the birthing center, but as soon as I got home, we started having issues. It seemed everywhere I turned for help, the response I received was "keep trying." I was exhausted, frustrated, in pain, and I felt like a failure. Until the day a dear friend said to me, "There are a million ways to nurture your child, breastfeeding is just one."
Moms, I'm eight years down the road of motherhood and I can tell you this is absolutely the truth. If breastfeeding isn't for you, that's okay. Your child will still thrive, and so will you.
However, if you want to breastfeed, one of the most important things you should do is educate yourself about the realities of breastfeeding as much as you can before your baby comes and you're too overwhelmed by exhaustion and hormones to think straight. Knowing whether you have any of the six signs below before you start trying to breastfeed could be an important first step in a successful breastfeeding journey.
1. You have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)
As Allyson Murphy, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) from the New Jersey-based Laid Back Lactation pointed out, one of the first clues you may have trouble breastfeeding is having Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). PCOS is a hormonal disorder which, according to the Mayo Clinic's website, may result in you having either infrequent or prolonged periods or excess male hormone (androgen) levels. And while Murphy notes that she has definitely seen mothers with this condition produce enough breastmilk (some even have an oversupply) there is research that suggests some women with PCOS may be at risk for insufficient milk supply, as explained on the breastfeeding support website KellyMom.com.
2. You have flat or inverted nipples
Another sign you may have trouble breastfeeding is if you have flat or inverted nipples. Please note though, this does not mean your baby won't be able to latch. It just means, according to Murphy, that you may need additional help, such as using nipple shields worn during feedings which help to draw your nipples out for easier latching.
Murphy also notes that some people who have flat or inverted nipples before pregnancy actually see a change in their nipples as the pregnancy progresses/after their baby is born.
3. You've had breast augmentation or reduction surgery
While Murphy is careful to note that many women who have had breast implant or reduction surgery do just fine with breastfeeding (I know several myself), it is possible, she says, that surgery of this kind may have led to "severing of the milk ducts and nerve endings" that help with successful breastfeeding/milk supply. As noted on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, "Breast implants below the muscle usually affect milk production less than implants above the muscle. Incisions around the areola and surgical techniques that include completely detaching the areolae and nipples are more likely to cause reductions in milk production."
In the past, there has been misinformation about the safety of breastfeeding for someone with silicone implants. This has largely been debunked though, with the CDC stating on its website, "Research is limited; however, there have been no recent reports of clinical problems in infants of mothers with silicone breast implants."
4. You have breast hypoplasia
No two breasts are the same. Literally, not even your two breasts are the same. And while size doesn't have anything to do with whether you will be able to breastfeed, your breast tissue might. Breast hypoplasia, otherwise known as insufficient gland tissue (IGT), is a condition that causes what's known as a chronic low milk supply due to, as Murphy describes, the way the way breasts developed during puberty.
As explained by an article on IGT in the Chicago Tribune, research on IGT and its impact on lactation is "almost nonexistent." However, a study was pieced together in 2000 by nurses and lactation consultants who looked at 33 breast-feeding women with breast characteristics they thought were linked to low production.
"The results," they report, "were striking. Women with characteristics such as a wide space between the breasts, breasts with a pronounced lack of fullness, breasts with unusually small base circumferences, and breasts that didn't grow during pregnancy, experienced very high rates of chronic low milk supply."
If this describes your breasts it's important to note that it doesn't mean you can't breastfeed at all. It just may mean you won't be able to exclusively breastfeed your infant.
5. You have a hormone imbalance
Murphy notes another thing that can impact milk supply are your hormones, specifically when it comes to thyroid disorders. The La Leche League explains on their website that thyroid issues (hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, and postpartum thyroid dysfunction), "often cause difficulty with milk supply and with milk removal." And, since your hormone levels can change drastically during pregnancy and childbirth, it's a good idea to have them checked regularly, even if you've had normal levels in the past.
6. You are a perfectionist
As I reflect back on my own breastfeeding journey, I realize that a portion of my struggle was not in the breastfeeding itself, but in my perception of what made it "successful." Much of the messaging we see now revolves around this word "exclusive." If "breast is best" that means that formula is "less than best." For someone with a perfectionist personality, this verbiage can be crippling. In my mind, if I wasn't exclusively breastfeeding from my own mammaries (and also enjoying it), I wasn't really breastfeeding.
Murphy explains that "breastfeeding doesn't have to mean 100 percent breastfeeding from the breast in order to be successful" despite, she notes, what we all see on the internet. Working with a supportive lactation consultant, one who understands and is trained in all the various issues that may be present, can help you let go of the pressure and judgment you may place on yourself when it comes to breastfeeding.
None of the issues above mean that you can't or shouldn't try to breastfeed if that's what you want to do. But what you need to know is that breastfeeding isn't one-size-fits-all. It may take some time to figure out what works for you and your baby because the truth is that none of the things mentioned above factor in the most important part of successful breastfeeding: your baby.
So yes, prepare and be aware of what challenges you may have going into it, but also know that a big part of your breastfeeding success is out of your control, and that's okay. You're still going to be a great mom.