When I was pregnant with my first, I was excited to breastfeed. My mother breastfed her five babies. My sister and sister-in-law breastfed theirs. I was an avid researcher and read up on the benefits of nursing (which were everywhere online). I was expecting a beautiful nursing experience. After all, 99% of what I read consisted of people’s amazing experiences.
I was caught completely off guard and knew something must be up when, before leaving the hospital, my nurses and midwives kept encouraging me to “stick with it.” I thought to myself, “Why are they worried I won’t stick with it? Isn’t nursing a beautiful, easy, and natural thing?” It didn’t take long for me to figure out why.
My first son was extremely difficult to breastfeed (story here). Our experience did not line up with anything I was expecting. I really struggled to exclusively breastfeed him until an emergency surgery at 2 months forced me to exclusively pump as well as supplement. I weaned him completely at 5 months.
When I had my second, a daughter, I was hoping things would be easier, and I didn’t want to be stuck pumping, so I tried exclusively nursing with no bottles. It has been easier in some ways, yet in other ways it’s been worse. I’ve exclusively breastfed her until five months, and now I’m working on weaning her (reasons why below).
After my own experiences and talking to lots of other women, family, and friends, I felt the need to add some balance to all of the articles out there that focus on how wonderful and perfect breastfeeding is. Nursing for many of us is extremely difficult in many ways (38+ are listed below). It is counter-productive to shhsh and shun people for mentioning these difficulties. Knowing that you aren’t alone in tough experiences can help with the initial shock, confusion, and frustration. I think these truths or secrets of breastfeeding for a lot of us are important to hear about.
Further, I’ve heard so many hurtful and judgmental comments from women who have had easy nursing experiences and frankly they should hear the other side of the story as well. By writing this, I’m hoping to help those who have difficulty nursing or choose not to breastfeed realize they aren’t alone and those who had an easy time with it understand more fully why some of us struggle with or don’t breastfeed.
Please, before you skip or even skim the rest of the article and comment below about how much damage I may be causing by writing about the negatives of breastfeeding, I encourage you to read the whole article. IF you haven’t experienced one of the following and don’t know anyone who has, then feel free to make derogatory comments. But if you have experienced at least one of the following cons of breastfeeding, or know someone who has, please believe that some women (including me) have experienced almost ALL of them. We are seeking for empathy and the reality to be made known (as harsh as it may be) that breastfeeding can be very painful, difficult, and embarrassing for some.
Note- This is for women’s eyes only! Believe me, men, you probably don’t want to know about some of these. Women proceed.
- Hunger- When I nurse I’m insatiable. It is scary really. It seems I just went grocery shopping and yet the fridge is empty. The first 6 weeks after I had my baby I scarfed down tons of food and never felt full.
- Reynaud’s Syndrome- Every 2 in 10 women have Reynaud’s (myself included) and most of us have no idea what it is, or even that we have it. It’s an extremely painful condition where the body doesn’t circulate blood to the nipples when a baby is latched on and feeding. The skin turns frost-bite-white. When the baby unlatches the blood goes rushing back into the nipple turning it red then deep red/purple. During the latch on and off an intense shooting pain pulses through the breast and chest. It even occurs at other times. This is very similar to blanching that many women experience as well. I tried the medication for Reynauds and although it did help the pain quite a bit, the many side effects forced me to quit. If you have it, I encourage you to see a dermatologist who is well education on this syndrome. My dermatologist had it as well and was very empathetic.
- Becoming immobile- You’re busy breastfeeding. You can hear your child rummaging through something and then it’s quiet. You call for them, they don’t answer. The quietness haunts you. You hurry and unlatch the baby and go to find out what they’re getting into and then you see it… crayons over all the walls; or the door wide open and they are down the street (how did they get the deadbolt and toddler latch undone!); or they got into the nail polish and ruined your carpet. It honestly took about 2 weeks for my toddler to realize that when mommy is feeding the baby- it’s ‘I can do anything I want time.’ Or how about the knock on the door, the FedEx package that requires a signature, or a neighbor coming by for a visit. Apparently we have a lot going on because it is rare for me to go a day and not have someone come by while I’m nursing. They are forced to wait while I unlatch, gather myself together, and get the door. Only to be greeted by a crying baby and frustrated mom.
- Gas- I have heard the statistic that lactating cows pass lots of gas. Makes sense. I will take a guess that the gas is the byproduct of the milk they make… but it never occurred to me that lactating mothers might have the same problem…until I experienced it. Shoot dang.
- Sore shoulders- You’ve heard the ‘bring baby to the breast’ rule many times. Don’t hunch over, hold baby up. Yet your shoulders and back are still sore. Don’t worry, even if you bring baby to breast it’s normal to be sore from having heavier breasts and holding/stabilizing your baby while nursing, etc.
- Nursing brain- I’m almost positive that this a real phenomenon. A lot of mothers have confirmed it as well.
- You can’t tell how much the baby ate. Did she drink 3 oz or 6 oz? Who knows. The experts tell you, “Oh just make sure to count the poopy and wet diapers.” Yet, suffering from lack of sleep and nursing brain and trying to track diapers (when I have two in them) is like one of those impossible Common Core math problems circulating on Facebook.
- Here’s another seemingly impossible nursing problem. Your baby is reacting negatively to ‘something you ate.’ You would have to hire Sherlock Holmes or get a degree in deductive reasoning to determine which—out of 30 different types of food you ate in the last two days your baby may be reacting negatively to (within a reasonable time frame). Process of elimination of what your baby is reacting to is painstakingly slow when nursing.
- Cracked and blistered nipples- You have a huge chunk of the middle of your nipple missing and it’s cracked in multiple places. Or you have nipple blisters. Each time you think they may be healing, it’s time to feed again. You fear that moment when your hungry baby with her strong suck latches on. Your toes curl and you clench your jaw as the pain shoots through you and a tear runs down your cheek. When are these ever going to heal? In my experience, not until your baby stops nursing. But these shields do help!
- Engorgement- Your baby is taking a long, long nap. You should be enjoying the ability to get stuff done, but instead you are feeling like you’re going to burst. You wonder, do I pump and get rid of this painful pressure? Or do I just suffer through it so I’m not telling my body that I need more supply than demand? Whatever you decide, one thing is for sure, engorgement is much more painful than the word implies… a word like about-to-burst-ment would be more fitting.
- Weight gain- I seriously thought breastfeeding would be the magic weight loss pill so many of us are looking for. For some, it actually is. For the rest of us we are stuck in our maternity clothes, counting calories, and trying our best to tame an intense hunger all the while wondering why we didn’t get the genetics that our friends who can ‘eat anything while nursing and still lose weight’ got. FACT- I gained 15 pounds nursing. I’ve lost 10 of them in the few weeks since weaning.
- Leaking breasts- Your baby slept through the night. You are stunned, amazed, excited! Maybe this will be the beginning of a new phase/habit. The excitement quickly fades when you realize you are lying in a puddle of milk. Time to strip the sheets, Google how to deep clean a mattress, and put down a towel and a bed liner for future nights. Why can’t this just be easy?
- Someone is sick but you are told, “Oh no worries your breastfeeding immunities will keep you and your baby healthy.” Right. I believed that too until my exclusively breastfed baby was hospitalized for RSV and two weeks later we both caught the flu.
- Thrush-A painful yeast infection that luckily I have not experienced. But hearing about women who have had thrush makes me glad I never had it.
- Breast pads- Getting them smoothed out and positioned ‘just so’ requires a bit of skill. If not, they bunch up creating wrinkling lines that show through your bra and shirt. Fabulous. Although I had the best success with these.
- Baby spitting up pink. ‘PINK spit up? But, I didn’t feed her KoolAid.’ I think to myself. After a series of Google searches and phone calls to my sister, friend, and mom they all confirmed what I didn’t want to imagine. It’s pink because she has been drinking my blood from my cracked nipples. GAG!
- Nursing shirts- When is the fashion industry going to figure out that cute nursing shirts that are slimming and functional are a great need in our society? Especially for larger chested women. They’ve figured out how to make fashionable maternity wear. Now let’s step up the quality and functionality of nursing shirts already.
- Thirst- As soon as your baby starts sucking you have one intense gut wrenching drive and that is to drink water! “Why didn’t you remember to grab that water bottle before allowing her to latch on?” I ask myself. It is just across the room on the table. Heck I even wrote a post on how to have a successful nursing experience (found here). But I’m not perfect and sometimes forget to grab water. The thirst is truly intense while breastfeeding (at least for the first two months while establishing my supply).
- Tied to a pump or baby and inability to get help- You want to see a box office hit. It’s a three hour show (three and a half including traveling time). Too bad. You’ll just have to wait till it comes out on DVD. You could go if you don’t mind getting up to pump. At times it is tough not getting more than a 3 1/2 hour break from a pump or baby.
- Once my babies are weaned a family member can take a night or early morning shift so you can get some sleep. Life is so much better when you are fully rested. He told me at one point when our baby was exclusively breastfed that he wished he could help more. Once she was weaned that has thankfully happened. While breastfeeding it is hard to share the feeding responsibility with others (because typically you have to pump or feed anyway).
- Supply issues- Everyone calls it supply and demand. The problem? Sometimes it takes a few days for the supply to meet up with the demand. Other times women just can’t supply the demand. This happened with my first son. Watching a baby scream in hunger after he has sucked for an hour and a half is really a very painful thing. In fact, there are few things I’ve experienced that are worse. Other women experience and over supply which can be just as frustrating. The flow is too strong and powerful for the baby and despite them being hungry the fire-hose-like-flow can make it difficult for them to eat.
- Can’t breastfeed in the car- Roadtrips are suddenly broken into 2-3 hours on the road 30 minutes in a parked car in a parking lot.
- Nursing while sick- Never had the flu while nursing? Lucky you. It’s pretty much one of the most miserable experience ever. It’s the first time I’ve shed tears of discouragement since pregnancy. While she was feeding I was holding back an intense desire to drink water AND do my best not to puke… all the while becoming more and more dehydrated. Fun stuff.
Inconsistent let down- I get my sweet baby latched. She sucks and sucks… here comes the let down, now she is guzzling, gagging, gasping for air she pulls off—eyes wide and frantic. Once she gets her breath she starts screaming. I calm her down, pat her back and bum until she burps, she latches back on. We ‘rinse and repeat.’
Not dieting- We’ve all heard not to diet while nursing. Looks like I’ll be wearing my pregnancy band or pregnancy jeans for a little while longer. (Granted, not dieting could be a plus, depending on your take on it).
Nipple confusion- With my first son, I gave him a bottle with expressed milk from the get go and he developed nipple confusion. He would scream and scream at the breast and I exclusively pumped for months because of it. So to avoid that from happening again, I held off introducing the bottle for four months with my daughter. Despite all my efforts, she won’t have anything to do with the bottle now…Update I did finally (after a long month of trying) get her to take this bottle and this formula. But it has been a no win=no win experience with nursing and bottle feeding simultaneously for me. How I did it here.
Taking medication- Will the medication effect my milk supply? Will my baby be effected? Who wants to risk something like that? It’s too bad some of us are forced to.
Flashing someone- Yes I’m a prude. I honestly have never chosen to dress very ‘risk-aye’ in my life. The fact that I accidentally flashed someone who I was most definitely not meaning to (when my baby unlatched and grabbed the cover away) was downright embarrassing. I should have bought a nursing cover like this. Or made one like this.
If you are large chested, keeping your finger pressed down so their little noses can breath (which I call the Snorkel technique) gets a little tedious.
Trying to get your milk to let down- I hated the times when my babies would suck and suck and yet my milk wouldn’t let down. I would be getting more and more stressed because nothing was coming. I’d try to relax, guzzle down water, and think ‘milk milk’ and she would get increasingly upset and hungry. Poor baby.
Cramping- You know those after labor cramps that get worse with every child? Yeah those ones. They get much more intense and painful during breastfeeding sessions. For fun.
Forgetting to click the nursing bra strap back into place- This just happened to me yesterday. After I fed my daughter, she feel asleep. I slipped her into the swing and quietly tip-toed out of the room. I was wearing a thick sweatshirt (thank goodness). A few hours later, after interacting with neighbors, etc. I realized my nursing strap hadn’t been clicked in entirely and I was (um) hanging loose under my sweat shirt so to speak. Big gigantic cringe of embarrassment right there!
Spitting up- It seems like babies sometimes spit up as much as they eat. It is so frustrating to see what you’ve work hard to get them to ingest promptly spit right back out. And if they’ve drank up most of the supply for that feeding they’ll just have to wait for a refill.
Weaning- A long drawn out process that is painful for both mom and baby. The most common advice is a bit masochistic, “wean baby very slowly.”
- Lip Tie & Tongue tie- It’s just awesome when your baby is born with a lip tie or tongue tie or BOTH. My second was. After going to the doctors and having it diagnosed as “not tight enough to get referred to an ENT to get them clipped,” my baby is left with difficulties sucking and getting a good latch. I’m left in pain. Sometimes genetics don’t encourage a great breastfeeding experience.
- Lazy Nurser- Babies who suck for a few minutes and won’t wake up again very easily. Then when you finally get them to wake up they suck some more and fall back asleep again! This is a challenge to say the least.
- Breastfeeding headaches- I never knew this was a thing until I had too many experiences of getting a splitting headache when breastfeeding my son for it to be a coincidence. After Google searches and reading on official medical websites I found out that YES some women have nursing induced headaches and I am one of those women. Grand. Although headaches didn’t happen every feeding time, I got them enough to begin expecting them.
- Biting- I’ve talked to a few of my friends recently who have read this article and told me I forgot the part about babies biting their moms while feeding. Two of them actually had a part of their nipples bitten off by their babies. This one is definitely worth mentioning. One said something startled her little one and she bit almost through it, the other said she wasn’t sure what made her baby bite so hard. They both had to get help from Dr.’s and stop breastfeeding out of the injured breast. IF this happens to you, get in to see your OB or lactation consultant immediately. For those who had this happen, I’m so sorry.
- Nursing a sick child- As a reader commented below: One added Con I did experience a couple of times was being the sole source of hydration for a baby who has a stomach bug. Basically there are days of being covered in vomit as you repeat the same cycle over and over.
- Mastitis- Yep, I saved the best for last. I’ve had it twice in the last month. The shivering, high fevers, violent shaking, hot showers, covered in 10 blankets, and an ER visit to make sure I wasn’t septic was pretty much hell on earth. With a heart rate of 128 and a fever of 105 my Dr. sent me straight to the ER. Experts say to keep nursing while you have mastitis which I did but while I was in the hospital I had to pump. I was horrified at what came out. I’ll spare you the details just know it wasn’t blood or milk that I was horrified about. I was so not happy my baby was consuming what she was, but they say it is okay. Double gag! On a very serious note Mastitis aka an infection of the breast must be monitored VERY CLOSELY as it can escalate to an infection of the blood quite quickly and you can become septic (something my Dr. told me). Even a $800 ER bill is easy to pay when a blood infection was a possibility.
So for all the mothers out there who have struggled with any one of the the aforementioned embarrassing, painful, or ugly realities of breastfeeding, know you aren’t alone.
- Babies benefit from qualities in the breastmilk- Breastmilk really is the best. All formula companies are trying to recreate it, but so far they just can’t.
- Bonding with each other- I loved the bonding time.
- Skin-to-skin contact is therapeutic for mom and baby.
- Mom and baby benefit from strengthened immune system- its not a “guarantee you won’t get sick” but it does help.
- It decreases risks of breast cancer for the mom.
- The feel-good hormones that come (when it is a painless feed) are really nice. Yes, this is a real thing… so much so I actually experienced PPD (with my first but not second) or a baby blue period (with my second) after weaning them.
- It saves money- unless you go to the ER for mastitis. HA!
- It is convenient in most circumstances.
- The milk is always warm.
- I don’t get judged by the ruthless ‘breast-is-best’ squad.
- Side lying feeds are relaxing and actually help me be a better mom because I rest while the baby eats.
- Picking a formula that works for a baby is tricky- it’s nice to not have to worry about choosing the best formula or worry about recalls and such.
- It is fulfilling knowing that I nourished my baby.
- I love when my baby latches on, and we just stare into each other’s eyes.
- It forces me to relax and slow down (something many of us new moms need)
- There is little waste. When bottle feeding, I’m always throwing away formula my babies didn’t consume.
- It’s efficient.
- Breastmilk stays good at room temperature about 6x’s as long as formula.
- Nursing has been scientifically proven as the better option. Important note- the health of the mother was not included in these studies. Please take that into consideration as well.
- You can multitask easier if you master the positioning, or breastfeed the baby in a carrier you can do other things simultaneously, with bottle feeding, at least until they can hold their own bottle it is much more difficult.
- You don’t have to worry about the pain of your milk coming in and not using it right after birth.
- Formula poo is stinky like an adult’s. Breastfed baby’s poo is only slightly offensive and is typically is easier for the baby to excrete.
The reality is—there are pros AND cons to breastfeeding. I’m not telling you to breastfeed or not. I just wanted to share these realities in case you’ve struggled like countless other women and I have. I’m glad I gave my first two a good breastfeeding try. Because of it I have had experiences on “both sides of the fence.” As a result, I feel no resentment and only compassion for formula feeding and nursing moms. I hope by reading this article you can too.