Why Breastfeeding Sucks but I Refuse to Give Up

I really have a love/hate relationship with breastfeeding.  It seems like every time I think I’ve got it together, some other problem pops up.  Right now I feel like I have an oversupply issue and I’m worried I’m going to get mastitis or something.  Better oversupply than undersupply I guess, but either problem warrants yet another trip to the lactation consultant.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  First, I’ll tell you a bit about my breastfeeding journey, starting with the beginning.

As I mentioned before, breastfeeding SUCKS and is HARD.  I was completely unprepared for that.  We took a breastfeeding class, and they kept talking about how "breast is best!" and "breastfeeding is the most natural thing in the world!" Then they scared the everliving daylights out of you: "you have to breastfeed if you want all of these wonderful benefits we’ve been discussing for the past half hour. If you supplement with formula EVEN ONCE, here is a chart of how you’ll never keep your milk supply up and you’ll basically ruin everything for yourself and your baby will have to be on FORMULA and won’t be as smart."  Okay, so those weren’t the EXACT words, but they were pretty darn close.  They also scared the everliving daylights out of us about pacifiers and bottles, two other EVIL things that will, without a doubt, ruin breastfeeding forever.

In the beginning…
Our hospital was really amazing, and the nurses there were wonderful at teaching me what to do.  For the first day, I really felt like I got the hang of it, and so did Charlie.  No real milk was coming out, of course, but the poster in the bathroom was encouraging: “Colostrum is LIQUID GOLD.  You may not have milk yet, but your baby is getting all the nutrition she needs.”  

The second day, however, things started to go south.  She wasn’t latching correctly and it started to HURT. I kept trying to deal with the pain, hoping it would go away and my nipples would “toughen up” or something.  Finally I gave up and called for a lactation nurse, who told me that I needed to give my nipples some time to heal, and to keep my supply up, I should pump.  Then she said the unthinkable: “I think you should supplement with formula.”  I basically burst into tears: the exhaustion of not sleeping in three days – coupled with my fears about formula – was too much.  I told her what they’d told me in the breastfeeding class, and told her that I really didn’t want to use formula.  I don’t remember what she said (I can barely remember anything, to be honest), but whatever it was, it convinced me that the baby needed to eat.  It may have been because she was small and was at high risk for jaundice, but I don’t remember.  There are two things I do remember: first, the nurse had a very cute Australian accent.  Second (and obviously more important) was that she said, “breastfeeding is difficult and a lot of women have a hard time with it.  Just because you supplement with formula doesn’t mean you won’t go on to breastfeed exclusively successfully.  Many, many women have to supplement with formula.  I did, and I had no problem exclusively breastfeeding for many months after that.”  What?! An actual human being who supplemented with formula and went on to breastfeed exclusively? It felt like seeing a unicorn, and it gave me a lot of help.

So we decided that I would pump and we would supplement with formula.  At the very least, though, I was not going to use a bottle – I think seeing her with the bottle would have been really upsetting for me in my heightened hormonal state.  We might be using formula, but I wasn’t going to expose Charlie to the dreaded NIPPLE CONFUSION.  I still am not entirely clear on what NIPPLE CONFUSION is, but I know that it is something Big and Scary, much like formula, and it has the potential to ruin breastfeeding forever (oy vey, right?). Instead, we tried finger feeding.  What a pain in the ass that was!  But I felt better about finger feeding than I did about a bottle, so we persevered.

When we left the hospital, we were given a follow-up appointment to have Charlie checked out two days later.  The nurse who made the appointment had the genius idea to make the follow-up appointment with a lactation consultant rather than a regular doctor, so that I could get help from an expert after finger feeding for a couple of days.  I was thrilled.  Finger feeding took ages: we had to prepare the formula, get the tube and syringe set up, and spend a half hour feeding her.  Then, Y would burp her and I’d spend another 20 minutes pumping.  And, of course, at the end of the 20 minutes, I’d look down to see that I’d pumped absolutely nothing.  And may I just say, pumping is kind of humiliating?  I felt like a broken milk machine.  It was incredibly frustrating.

Things started to turn around a bit the night before the appointment, when I looked down after pumping to find that I had actually PRODUCED something.  It wasn’t much, but it was something!  My parents were with us, and my reaction to seeing the fruits of my labor was apparently enough to crack up everyone in the room.  I felt like I’d had a breakthrough. The next morning I started to feel the beginning stages of engorgement, which wasn’t very pleasant – but at least it meant something was happening.

At the appointment, I explained to the lactation consultant (who, oddly, was an old friend of the family and actually helped deliver me! Her name is even in my baby book!) why we were finger feeding.  I also explained that breastfeeding was very important to me, and that I hated having to supplement.  The lactation consultant (who was wonderful) helped me to get Charlie latched on correctly, but it still hurt a lot.  At this point, she introduced me to the nipple shield (basically a plastic thing that goes over the nipple and has holes in it – the baby latches onto the plastic thing instead of the nipple so it doesn’t hurt).  It was a strange concept to put a little plastic thing over my nipple, but I can’t explain the elation I felt at actually being able to feed my child.  It was wonderful.

After about a week and a half of successfully using the nipple shield, my nipples started to hurt again.  A lot.  I made another appointment to go back to the lactation consultant.  This time I saw someone else, who was equally as wonderful.  As it turns out, I wasn’t putting the nipple shield on right, so only the nipple (instead of the areola) was in Charlie’s mouth.  Oops.  It was the dreaded Bad Latch.  I was taught how to do it right, and all was well with the world.  

For about a week and a half.

I started to notice that although I was putting the nipple shield on right, it was sort of sliding up after I’d put it on, so it was no longer on right.  No matter how many times I attached it, it was like the nipple was receding inside the shield.  When Charlie would latch on, she’d have a Bad Latch.  I stupidly ignored this for a few days.  By the time I called for help, I was having a LOT of pain.  The only way I can describe it is that it felt like one part of my nipple was being sucked out of one tiny hole in the shield.

This time, the lactation consultants at Hippy Hospital were all booked up, so I went to the hospital closest to us.  I saw a new lactation consultant, and she wasn’t very good.  She told me that the nipple shield should only be used as a short-term solution and that I needed to stop using it.  She helped me latch Charlie directly onto my breast once, and then sent me on my way.

Well, as it turns out, it’s not that simple.  Although I had Charlie positioned right, I couldn’t get her to latch on when I got home.  After extensive googling (which, really, is my forté), I discovered that she was basically ADDICTED to the nipple shield, which is huge and hard and very easy for her to nurse with.  My nipples were tiny in comparison and she didn’t recognize them as the source of her food.  And of course, my appointment had been on a Friday afternoon, and lactation was closed for the weekend, so I had no help.  I worked my ass off trying to get her to latch on correctly, reading a lot of stuff online and watching a lot of videos.  I was lucky that Charlie caught on relatively quickly, and by Monday I was pretty confident that we’d be able to work things out.

For, like, a week.

And then I ended up with another problem – for some reason Charlie was refusing to latch on correctly, after having done it right for a week.  She was also screaming her head off – a lot. WTF?  I called the lactation consultant, who was super busy.  We talked on the phone, and she said she thought I was “hosing” Charlie.  What is hosing, you might ask?  Basically, it’s a laymen’s term for overactive letdown, meaning I had too much milk coming out too fast.  Charlie was trying to slow the flow by clamping down on my nipple.  In addition, the fast flow was causing her to swallow a lot of air, which was giving her gas.  To be honest, I thought this was load of hooey.  I didn’t see any evidence of my “hosing” the poor kid.  But I did what the LC said to do anyway, which involved acrobatics during feeding time in which I somehow would maneuver Charlie to be on top of me instead of below me, thus making gravity work against the milk so it wouldn’t come out as fast.

To be honest, I’m still not entirely convinced that I am “hosing” her.  My best buddy has overactive letdown, and her description of what it’s like (spraying milk, baby choking and coughing) is not happening to me.  She coughed while nursing for the first time yesterday.  I still do the acrobatics, mostly in the super early morning when my milk supply is supposed to be the highest, just in case.

Over time, Charlie has gotten a lot better at latching on. My nipples hurt a lot less than they used to, although I have one major problem: nipple vasospasm.  What is a nipple vasospasm, you might ask?  It’s basically a migraine in your nipple: the blood vessels contract and your entire nipple turns white.  Oh, and it hurts like hell.  I was given medication for it, but unfortunately one of the side effects is headache – and as someone with a history of chronic migraine headaches, I (of course) suffered from the side effect and had to stop the medication.  Right now I’m just kind of dealing with it because I have no choice.  I think I have a mild case of it, too, which is lucky.

After I was finally able to successfully feed Charlie, I was able to focus on other things because breastfeeding wasn’t so all-consuming.  And the main thing I noticed was that my baby cried a lot.  And when she cried, she wasn’t just crying – she was absolutely screaming in pain, kicking and writhing and punching the air with her little fists.  Absolutely nothing we did could console her.  Did we have a “colicky” baby?  Or was something else wrong?

Lucky for Charlie, my friend K (the same one who told me about overactive letdown) had the same problem with her first baby.  I remembered K describing her daughter’s crying as “screaming in pain,” and wondered if Charlie had the same issue: dairy allergy.  My suspicions started to grow after I ate some delicious fudge and her crying worsened.

I know this might sound strange, because it’s not like I was feeding Charlie dairy directly, but quite a few women I know have had the same problem – dairy in the mother’s diet sometimes causes extreme gas and pain in their little nursling.  So I decided to cut out dairy.  And would you believe it, her screaming fits stopped.  She still cried, but nothing like before.  She was like a whole new baby.  

For like, a week and a half.

As you can imagine, eating dairy-free is really hard, especially for a vegetarian.  I had to suck it up and eat a lot more meat.  And, because I really don’t like meat, I was eating a lot more soy.  As it turns out, something like 30% of newborns with a dairy allergy/intolerance also have an intolerance to soy.  Charlie and I are apparently part of that lucky 30%.  Trial and error has shown us that she can tolerate small amounts of soy (like butter substitute, a Tofutti Cutie, etc), but a meal made with primarily tofu is a no-go.

The #1 question I get asked when I tell people that I can’t eat dairy or soy is whether she’ll have this allergy for life.  Apparently most infants grow out of it, which is a major relief, as this diet really, really sucks.  It takes all of the interest out of food, makes dining out close to impossible, and has me eating a lot of stuff I don’t like — I would hate if she had to spend her life eating like this.  But really, it makes sense that she is having issues with digesting food – she’s doing it for the very first time ever, and her digestive system is really immature.  For the same reason that all babies have reflux to some extent, a lot of babies just can’t tolerate foods that are even slightly irritating.  As time goes on, I may be able to reintroduce dairy slowly and see if she can tolerate it.

The second question I get asked is how long I will breastfeed.  I don’t know the answer to that question exactly, but I guess “as long as I can” is good enough.  Despite all of it’s difficulties and annoyances, I really enjoy breastfeeding.  It makes me feel good to know that I’m the one helping her to gain 11 ounces in a week, and I love the bonding time with her.  She’s so darn cute.  I also like the idea that by breastfeeding, I’m saving us a LOT of money.  Formula costs somewhere between $100 and $200 a month, which is an expense we’d obviously rather avoid. I’m not working as much right now, so I’d like to help in any way I can.  Plus, can you imagine trying to find a formula made without dairy and soy?  Lord help us. 

I’m no longer worried about all of the things the breastfeeding class scared me about.  Sure, “breast is best,” but I don’t really know if I believe in NIPPLE CONFUSION (we gave Charlie a soothie pacifier at 2 weeks to shut her up and have been using it ever since) and I certainly don’t believe that “you supplement once and you’re up formula creek without a paddle.”  Every woman does what’s right for her, and breastfeeding is HARD.  There are so many factors involved (as you can clearly see from my experience) and if you add any other stressors – having to go back to work, for example – it just gets that much harder.  

I know that breastfeeding comes easy to some people (*cough cough* Gisele), but for others it’s a difficult process.  I don’t want to scare anyone who hasn’t tried it yet, but I also think it’s important to know that it isn’t always “the most natural process in the world.”  If it’s hard for you, you’re not alone, and you’re certainly not a failure.  I completely credit the support of wonderful lactation consultants for my success thus far.  Ask for help, and ask for it RIGHT AWAY.  Don’t wait, not even for a couple of days.  The problems only get worse or develop into other problems.  

And that, my friends, is my story (and my number one piece of advice for success)!  Any questions?

Author: Sara

Single mom at 29. Diagnosed with breast cancer at 34. I believe in grit, resilience, and the power of making lemonade out of exceedingly sour lemons.

16 thoughts on “Why Breastfeeding Sucks but I Refuse to Give Up”

  1. Breastfeeding can be really hard! But you are doing great by sticking with it and trying everything you can. My 1st was a difficult baby and in those first few months she drank pumped milk from a bottle several times a day (and occasionally formula – gasp!) just because I couldn’t take the pain all the time. But it got better! As she got a bit older she figured it out and went on to primarily breastfed and I used the overstocked frozen pumped milk to teach her to accept sippy cups once she neared the 1 year mark. (My 2nd and 3rd were much, much easier to breastfeed.)
    As for allergies – that is a big hurdle too. My youngest has lots of food allergies but one of the best things we found was coconut milk from So Delicious. It comes in refrigerated cartons and tastes a lot like regular dairy milk. They make a very tasty ice cream too – diary and soy free!

  2. My niece had allergies to both dairy and soy. The formula that they used was INCREDIBLY expensive and can only be ordered online. Quite the pain. However, she seems to have grown out of her allergies/sensitivities as she is now 2 and 1/2 and eats anything and everything!

    I think it’s so important to get the word out that supplementing, if needed, will not ruin your breastfeeding relationship forever. I really try to emphasize this with my breastfeeding patients and alleviate some of the guilt.

  3. Oh man, do I ever feel you on the difficulties of breastfeeding.

    I was given a nipple shield in the hospital after the nurses told me I had inverted nipples. My baby just would not latch on his own, and I was really worried I’d have to give him formula. He took to the shield right away, and of course, as soon as I was given the go-head to pump and give him bottles, he took to those right away too, because the nipples of the bottle are thick like those of the shield. I’m still using the shield, and he’s 5 1/2 weeks old.

    I have an appointment with my lactation consultant on Friday so she can show me how to get him to latch successfully without it, but I fear that both of us have gotten too used to it. For me, it works like a charm, but I’ve read all kinds of opposing viewpoints as to why women shouldn’t use them. Part of me wonders if it’s better that I use it and he gets the breastmilk at all, rather than me having to supplement with formula or switch to it altogether?

    I dunno. But I applaud you for all your hard work. It’s nice to know I’m not alone with my breastfeeding worries.

  4. Thanks for sharing your story.  And congrats on how far you’ve come in the breastfeeding battle against supervillains like “NIPPLE CONFUSION” and “BAD LATCH.”  hahahaha…those names and the evils implied… I love that you’re able to not take everything you hear so seriously and find something that works for you and Charlie.  🙂

  5. Oh gosh I remember, and my youngest is 20 now:). I couldn’t even put a shirt on for 6 weeks it hurts so much, and my daughter also had allergies, which gave her ear infections, which caused screaming and pulling off, and I ‘hosed’ her and on and on. Cut to the end of the story, I nursed her until she was 3 and half and had to stop because her little brother was 6 months old and nursing two was too much:). She outgrew her food allergies too. And is tall and beautiful and slender and I feel like I help with that. So stick it out if you want to and feel proud as hell.

  6. I commend you for sticking with it!! I had latching problems with Paige (1st baby) and soreness. I tried pumping and bottle feeding and couldn’t keep up. I gave up and switched to formula at 2 months old. I felt so guilty and couldn’t understand how this was supposed to be this “natural” process. It sucked. I never asked for help though and I should have. 2nd and 3rd babies are much easier!

  7. It’s interesting – I just saw a similar article on my multiples website. MOM = Mother of Multiple

    I don’t know if you saw my blog post about breastfeeding but I had major troubles too:

    Some similar things to you: I dealt with nipple shields that always slid off. I hated when I didn’t get the lactation consultant that worked best for us and would get ones that would say “no nipple shields!” or tell us that they should get milk from the breast only. (They weighed them at Newborn Club at Kaiser after 20 min. on the breast and 30 min. and 40 min. and they saw that they didn’t take in much more after 20-30 min. so letting them nibble away forever was not the way to go about it.) I SO hope you have a Newborn Club at your Kaiser. I still used them up to a few weeks ago!) Your feedings take long now but imagine having twins that are bad suckers that EACH require 20-30 min. on the breast then 20 min. bottle (pumped milk) + 10 min. burping, and then I needed to pump for up to 20 min. Insanity!!!

    I felt like a failure the first time they had formula, but you know what – it’s not poison. They are fine. Charlie is fine even if she ends up all on formula. She’ll be great because she has a mama that cares so much about her she’s worried about her getting enough milk.

    I ended up getting a yeast infection on my nipple (joy), and didn’t know it for 1 1/2 months. In the meantime it was very painful and I had to pump less often and for shorter periods of time and adjust the pump (both per nurse’s instructions) to the lowest level. (I didn’t think I had an infection because it didn’t sound like the description when I spoke to nurses on the phone.) In that time period my milk production dropped way down until finally I was making 1 oz. per pumping (5-6/day). That equated to 5-6 oz. for babies that together consumed about 66 oz. per day. It just didn’t seem worth it, and on my own, pumping was super stressful because I just don’t get breaks (I barely eat lunch already). So I weaned nearly a month ago. I’m sad about it but think it was the right decision.

  8. Charlie is so lucky to have a mom who cares so much to spend so much time researching and trying to figure out how to make her little life easier. Way to go Sara!

    I remember having many of the same issues as you… the bad latch, the nipple vasospasm (aka Raynaud’s) and the dairy allergy…  so I feel your pain (literally!).

    Here’s a breath of hope: excruciating pain while breastfeeding and nipple blanching/pain disappeared of its own accord at six weeks for me. Yep, all of a sudden, just like that. I was shocked too but oh so very grateful. After talking to many other mamas, I’ve heard similar stories. Not sure what it is about the six week-ish mark, but here’s hoping it proves true for you too. You’re about there I think too, right? Fingers crossed for you.. As for the dairy allergy, I started reintroducing dairy slowly at four months and so far so good. Some say certain babies’ digestive systems need an extra 3 months (that magical “fourth trimester”) to finish developing so who knows, maybe that was it.

    Finally, I just have to say it: soothers are AMAZING. We finally taught our babe to use one at 3 months and it has been a lifesaver. Both he and we are sooo much happier. I wish I had ignored all that scary nipple confusion stuff I’d read and had tried it sooner.

    You’re doing an amazing job doing everything you’re doing, mama. Great post.

  9. I’ve been reading your blog since the Weddingbee days! It’s been wonderful to read about your new adventures in motherhood!

    Great post…yes breastfeeding is hard! My breastfeeding journey was quite the rollercoaster as well, starting with three weeks of bad latch and the resulting vapospasm, cracked nipples etc. I saw an LC and she helped marvelously! Then came the first bout of mastitis with full blown symptoms – fever, chills, aches – lots of fun at 3am stripping your 1 month old down to his nappy in the middle of winter to wake him up so he could drain the breast! But I kept going! I had another bout of mastitis about a month later, and then a fungal infection! But I kept trooping and I’m glad I persevered. My son is now 17 months and we’re still going strong!

    Well done for battling! It will get easier and it sounds like you’ve gotten over the first and toughest hurdle. I kep telling myself, get to three months and then you can stop if you want. Then it was get to 6 months….after that, it was a breeze and didn’t have to tell myself that anymore!

  10. What a wonderfully refreshing honest account.  I would venture to say that MOST people find bf’ing difficult.  I hate hate hate when people say “if it hurts, your doing it wrong.”  Yeah, maybe, but not necessarily.  I think it depends on your pain tolerance!  It’s always going to hurt a little.. those gums are hard!  Anyway, I’m happy that you are at peace with what you are doing now – that’s most important.  There’s so much judgment (especially in the bay area, I think) about not breastfeeding and formula feeding (and now the bug parts.  geez.) It is hard.  It’s not fair to paint it any other way (and shame on that class for many things, but most of all for making anyone feel less than for only making the best choice they could for their family). 
    I too am sticking it out.  Little P is 6 months old – and I’m back at work – and she’s growing like a weed.  Somehow I’m keeping up and I’m proud of that. 
    Re: your oversupply—I always have that any time P goes thru a growth spurt.  After she’s done growing, it takes a week or so for my supply to level off.  I think generally I have a fast let down, but luckily P adapted to that OK. 
    Anyway, a friend of mine really struggled with bf’ing and had some infection where she had to walk around topless for a few days.  So, at least you didn’t have to do that 😉

  11. a. you crack me up, s. b. my neph was allergic to dairy and soy for a few months and grew right out of it in just a few short months.

  12. Loved your comments what a great story on breastfeeding if only they would tell it like it is I reckon more woman would persevere. 
    Re: medication for nipple vasospasm I had same reaction you are describing to nifedipine but then my doctor switched me across to methyldopa and I got full relief from vasospasm without the dreadful side effects that nifedipine has (did still have some fluid retention but nothing compared to being pregnant so I was over the moon).  You might want to give this med a try its used by many obs. to treat high blood pressure during pregnancy and is safe to use during breastfeeding.

  13. I don’t know if I would have stuck with it if I had as many problems as you had. Finger feeding? I don’t think so!  I was lucky enough to have two children who breastfed easily. Unfortunately my youngest developed a wheat allergy as a toddler, but after reading your post I am glad he didn’t get it while I was breastfeeding.

  14. I know I’m late to this post, but I wanted to send you some serious kudos for sticking with breastfeeding. It was a very hard journey for me too in the beginning. My LO had a terrible and very painful latch and it took us a few weeks and more than once LC to finally get it right. Nearly 16 months later, we’re still breastfeeding and I am SO happy I stuck with it.

    BTW, I believe nipple confusion is more of a nipple preference. If a bottle is introduced when the little one is a newborn, they can develop a preference for the flow of a bottle since they don’t have to work to get milk to flow, unlike breastfeeding. We had to bring my son back to the NICU with jaundice where he received a few bottles. I was terrified we’d have this problem, but eventually we both figured it out.

  15. Much props to you!! I’ve been following you for a while, but now have a 7-week old, so I am finally understanding what you have been writing about. Travis and I had a lot of issues with latching and I think I was “hosing” him as well.  I have eventually switched to exclusively pumping and bottle feeding, but can’t help feel like a failure.  Were you able to get breastfeeding down?  I’m wondering if 7-weeks is too late to try to get him to latch on again.  Although I don’t mind the extra steps of cleaning the pumping tools and the actual pumping process, I know I’d be able to save a lot of valuable time if we just learn to use the boob… He has bad reflux and was prescribed Prevacid by the Pediatrician after have several sleepless nights (Gripe water didn’t help).

  16. Aubrey, I’m so glad you commented! YES it gets SO much easier. It’s second nature to both Charlie and I now. Pumping is such a royal pain in the butt by comparison. Even feeding her solid foods is a pain by comparison.

    I would definitely visit a lactation consultant, because as long as your supply is there it should NOT be too late to teach him to latch on.

    RE: the reflux – have you tried cutting anything out of your diet (a lot of babies react to dairy, or get gas from things like onions).

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