Everything you have ever heard about what breastfeeding feels like from a breastfeeding parent — physically, emotionally, and otherwise — is true. It's kind of astounding how one experience can look and feel so different from person to person. It's one of the great contradictions in a world chock full of contradictions. There's a lot we can learn from other nursing moms, lactation consultants, doctors, et cetera in our own breastfeeding journeys, but ultimately everyone will have to learn what works for them.
I'm not just talking about the decision of whether or not to breastfeed in the first place. Some tips and tricks to boost (or regulate) supply work for some people and don't for others. Certain holds work well for a great number of women, but not others. There are a million near universal truths, but no true universal truths, and that can be intensely frustrating for anyone trying to get a handle on this, not just logistically, either. There are no emotional universals either, which can make wrapping one's head around their experience complicated.
It's always fascinating to me to have conversations with other nursing moms. Because even someone whose stats were identical to mine — late 20s to early-30s, two kids, fortunately had an easy time breastfeeding, nursed for 17-20 months — may have a wildly different take on what that experience felt like. I loved it, other women I know counted down the days until they felt they could stop. I didn't feel a strong moral compunction to nurse; Other women only did so because of her research into the benefits of breastfeeding. I only felt pain the first week or so; Some friends nursed through discomfort or even agony for months and months.
I talked to 20 women about what breastfeeding felt like to them, and here's what they had to say.
"At first, it feels like a chicken attacking your nipple. The pain is almost unbearable and you just want to quit. But, then the emotional bond starts and it stops hurting and you can't imagine stopping."
"I'm seven weeks into this crazy thing. Emotionally, I've felt scared, frustrated, stressed, proud, relaxed, all in the last week! ... Overall, it feels weird, both physically and emotionally. I had no idea how much I'd care about it. I thought I'd give it a shot, and if it worked great and if it didn't, no big deal that's what formula is for. I didn't at all expect to be so emotional about it. But now, just shy of two months in, I'm proud that I've made it this far!"
Like you're part cow, part emotional mess. An emotional milking cow that is always hungry and in need of approximately a bazillion cups of water while nursing.
"The way breastfeeding felt changed as my children aged and was also a different experience with each child. There was pain in the beginning, like burning sandpaper every time my first son latched on for a few weeks. As he got older and we got better at it, it was just slobbery tugging. The cuddles and the feeling of warmth, and comfort kept us going for just over a year. My second child was ... was similar but shorter.
I got pregnant with my third child ... [and] I decided, with my ob's blessing, to attempt tandem nursing. ... Nursing both my youngest children at the same time eased the transition for my daughter and gave me a chance to sit down and cuddle with them. I had a love hate relationship with tandem nursing. I loved that I could sit down and keep them both happy and occupied and we could all get some rest. I hated it because they both needed me so much and someone was always touching me. My [youngest] just weaned [this month]. While I'm glad to have my body be my own again, I really do miss the closeness that came from nursing and the ease of comforting my babies when they are sad, tired or not feeing well."
"When I nurse I visualize the letdown I relax my body and say, "OK now you can let down. (My body often mistakes other moments like in a dressing rooms or right out of the shower to explode but that's another story.) As I hold my [baby] close, it's like a hot intense sharp feeling when it lets down then he chugs away happily. When he looks in my eyes during its such an intense bond."
"At first, totally awkward, then it crept into brushing my nipples against sandpaper. Finally started feeling more comfortable, and actually quite a relief, especially when you are engorged and you can just feel the milk passing through and the pressure leave. Emotionally, at first, very trying because it was new and I didn't know if I was doing it right. Then it became second nature and felt more like quality bonding time for just the two of us. It was totally amazing to know someone was strictly living off of something I made!"
After the initial discomfort, which seems common in the first few days, it feels very natural and comfortable. It becomes like an instinct or second nature. It's not the most amazing thing ever, but it's not bad either. It just kind of is.
"For the first 3 months, breastfeeding felt worrisome. I had an oversupply and my baby had colic. I was insecure, nervous, and didn't know what I was doing or if my milk or latch was creating discomfort for my son. After 3 months and then also with my second child, breastfeeding felt like a warm hug, a sweet pause, and a chance to reconnect with my babies no matter how difficult or busy the day was. I nursed my older son until he was 3 and he told me that the milk was like warm love in his tummy."
"In the beginning, it was extremely painful. It felt like I was being stabbed every time she latched on. After a few weeks, it wasn't painful anymore and just felt like I was emptying my breast. Although I only breastfed for a few months, there was happiness and satisfaction of knowing that I was helping my child grow. Also, you definitely get a high from the endorphins, which was a nice bonus and I suspect, the only reason I got through the initial torture. Lastly, maybe it's just me, but breastfeeding made me super hungry. I could not stop eating."
Love, happiness, and protection... weighed down by exhaustion and a baby-shaped anchor
"Remember the Flowbee? Yeah. Like that, but for my boobs."
"Breastfeeding feels warm, loving, natural, innate, and nurturing. Basically one of the most amazing things I've ever done with my body other than actually create and birth the child. It rocks."
Like a ravenous vacuum cleaner capable of pinching and wailing.
"I am a super-milker. Like, MOO ... There would be mornings when I would wake up with my breasts rock-hard and engorged and the kid could only manage to drain one breast ... It was really REALLY uncomfortable, and with so much supply, for the first few months when my milk let down, it felt like a giant fist was trying to push out my chest wall (think Alien.) Later, when my supply got more regulated, it was a pins and needles sensation. Not necessarily pleasant, but not horrible ... That said, the experience of nursing was never painful or upsetting for me ... I even had so much that I donated to Mother's Milk Bank of the Northeast, where my extra milk was used to feed premature and medically fragile babies, something that was immensely gratifying to me."
"For my first, it was toe curling. We never could get a good latch, and I gave up after 10 days and exclusively pumped for nine months. But with my second, it has been happy. That sounds weird, but that is how it feels. Happy, soothing and gentle. And I get it, this time around. How it's supposed to be. It always feels like it's just the two of us, like there is no one else in the world, when she wakes for her nighttime feed. I have never minded those, and I might be sad when they disappear."
Emotionally, it felt like something I had waited my whole life for. To be the one who met the most essential need of this baby and there was no one else who could do that for my baby.
"To me, breastfeeding felt like a lot of different things depending on the time of day, my mood, and how my daughter was responding to it. The first time she latched perfectly and just suckled to her heart's content, I was unspeakably empowered and proud. I never knew I could feel so great about myself for doing something that was seemingly so passive."
"For me, it feels very much like a way to continue the connection of the womb. I love that he still depends on part of my body for his well being, and it's time for us to reconnect when our life gets crazy. Other times it feels like a burden, like when I'm sick and no one else can comfort him but me. But I'm always grateful to have the almighty boob to fix most of his problems!"
Like wiggling a loose tooth. In the beginning it feels awful and weird, but then it becomes a kind of satisfying pain.
"Breastfeeding evokes all the feels. Literally, it tingles. Emotionally, it feels amazing that you are providing your baby with optimal nourishment and comfort. It is truly bonding. And personally, it feels like a victory. I tried very hard to breastfeed my daughter and it was just not going to happen. My son was a preemie and I knew I would give it all I had to make it work and, when it did, yeah...I felt victory and pride."