October 19, 2011

Breastfeeding Sucks

Self-deception is always a problem.  With me, it usually rears its ugly head in the thought that I don’t really need to count just this one little piece of chocolate.

So I can't claim to be shocked when I observe it in others.  I think it's a normal human trait.

But it has been a consistent and disturbing fact over my career that mothers are given information which is simply and obviously wrong.  I don't know it for a fact, but I suspect the problem is well-intentioned propaganda.

I admit that I can justly be accused, in an ad hominem argument against me, of being mammarily-challenged.  But that doesn't make it right.

My job, naturally enough, has brought me in contact with hundreds and hundreds of mothers and babies over the years.  Even mothers who have nursed many children say that at the beginning, it's quite painful.  Later on, when the baby is months old, they still say that almost always the initial latch causes a flash of pain.  (Once this latch pain is over, however, it's usually painless.)

It bothers me that the vocal, even militant, advocates for breastfeeding have so downplayed the discomfort associated with normal breastfeeding that they might be hurting their own cause.

I don't know for sure, but I suspect the authors of breastfeeding books and others resolutely claim that nursing is painless because they don't want mothers to be scared of trying it.  My guess is that they have wanted to give mothers, especially first time mothers, the idea that nursing is a blissful satori-like state in which your earth-mother womanhood will reach some sort of ultimate fulfillment. 

venus of willendorf

What I hear in my office, from every Gaia-aspirant, is very different.  The initiation of breastfeeding—even for mothers who have nursed many previous babies—is painful.  Let's face it:  nipples are a reasonably sensitive part of your body, and they are generally not conditioned to this use.  Many times a day.  Sure, babies generally aren't born with teeth.  But they can, as the expression goes, suck the chrome off a trailer hitch.  As if that's not enough, saliva is a digestive juice.  It might not be as irritating as stomach acid, but leave any skin wet with saliva and it will get irritated within hours.  (By the way, this is an important reason that toddlers using pacifiers often have a rash around their mouths.)

I have not seen a baby whose mother has not noted this pain.  Clearly, it's normal.  I don't think knowing about this pain would make a new mother avoid breastfeeding.  She just had a baby!  I think she can handle it.

Since I try to promote nursing, I've been frustrated by the mistaken expectation of new mothers that the process is supposed to be painless.  They often get the feeling that they must be doing something wrong, or there's something wrong with them, or there's something wrong with their baby.  Again and again, I have to tell them that the baby and their breasts are doing just fine, and what they are experiencing is normal.  I give them lots of suggestions for things they can try that might help.  And I am unhesitant to send them to a lactation consultant.

I suspect that some postpartum depression is worsened by this feeling of helplessness and inadequacy, that there's something fundamental wrong with themselves, or their bodies.  Their expectations for motherhood were so high, that this normal deviation from those expectations can't be anything but disappointing.  So I wonder if breastfeeding advocates have made it sound so effortless that many mothers switch to formula right away.  Some have told me that they think there's something wrong with them, and being good mothers, they want to be sure their baby is getting enough.  By formula feeding at the most painful time--often when the baby is 2-5 days old--they never produce enough to get the system working effectively.  They are afraid that they aren't able to produce enough, and sure enough, they can't.  This confirms their self-doubt.  But it's just something else for them to feel bad about.

I think it would be much more helpful to tell women openly what they should realistically expect.  At least they will be prepared and reassured that what they are going through is normal.


  1. Good post. I like all of my friends believed that 'natural' meant easy. How can something that looks so simple be so painful and difficult?

  2. As we were taught about delivery itself: there's a difference between pain and suffering. It's never been an evolutionary priority for us to live pain-free, and pain is often crucial operating information for anyone in stewardship of a human body.

    We're currently attempting exclusive breastfeeding and it really is a pain in the ass in many ways. Days without sleep, a baby that never seems satisfied, two sore nipples (a yeast infection on one), a husband and grandparents who want to help but can't really do anything... I can see just exactly how easy it would be to quit and switch to bottle feeding.

    It seems that an entire generation of America did just that: quit. I can understand and even forgive the enthusiasm of breastfeeding advocates who are trying to help our culture claw its way back from that.

    They certainly promote an aspirational image of what breastfeeding can be like. But you don't have to venture far into the La Leche League or Mothering.com websites to find all kinds of discussion about the various challenges involved. I think the truth is pretty much out there, but as you say, people find it out later than they should: once they're already in the throes of failure and suffering the attendant stress.

    IMHO the best sales pitch for breastfeeding is not how natural and painless the experience is, but how beneficial it is for the child and mother. Those benefits are genuine magic and well worth struggling through some difficulty to achieve.

  3. This is an excellent post I seen thanks to share it. It is really what I wanted to see hope in future you will continue for sharing such a excellent post.

  4. Thank you for articulating what I, as a mother of 2 young children, suspected all along.

  5. Oh, I just LOVED this article!!! I have had an absolute hatred for LLL nurses since the first time I gave birth, when I sat crying excruciating tears of pain as my baby tried to latch on to my torn, bleeding nipples,,,and the nasty nurse kept saying, "It doesn't hurt! If it does you're doing it wrong!" Four children later, and I can positively state that she (and the others I've dealt with) are all big, fat LIARS! I totally agree w/ your comment that "they" are unintentionally harming their cause by spreading misinformation. I didn't even attempt to feed my second child breastmilk because I was still seething from my previous experiences in dealing w/ breastfeeding reality.


Please let me know what you think. Do you know a child or situation like this?