Many mothers start off thinking of breastfeeding simply as a feeding method. In those first few weeks, they want to be sure they are doing it right—and, of course, that their baby is getting enough to eat. Sometimes the technicalities of nursing can wear a mother down, especially if she is having difficulties. Sore nipples, for instance, are among the top reasons that women give up breastfeeding (sore nipples that make nursing unbearable are not normal, and there are usually simple solutions out there to remedy them). Other mothers are trying to remedy low milk supplies. Another, lesser-known discomfort is a phenomenon known as D-MER, where mothers feel strong feelings of depression and agitation when their milk lets down (these feelings are linked to hormones, and disappear soon after letdown).
Even without challenges like these, new nursing moms are often bogged down with concerns about feeding schedules (is he really ready to eat again?), leaking breasts, sleep deprivation, self-doubt, body image issues—and just the huge, often startling transition into motherhood. My own first son had trouble latching on. For the first few weeks it took lots of tries, repositioning, and coaxing to get him to latch on and suck. Once he latched on things were fine (though I was still an exhausted, leaky mess), but nursing often felt tedious, technical, and stressful. By the time the latching got more seamless, the fussy evenings began, and my son would often cry at the breast until we could calm him down enough to nurse.
I had this image in my head of tranquil breastfeeding, mom and baby nestled together with beads of light surrounding them. I had some nice moments, but I didn’t seem to be there yet.
This is very common, especially for first-time mothers. Breastfeeding or not—having a newborn for the first time is difficult. Very difficult. And it doesn’t help that there is pressure from within and without to “enjoy every moment.” It doesn’t help that people think breastfeeding is supposed to be easy and perfect right away. It doesn’t help that there is a seemingly easier solution out there (bottles and formula), while there is very little accessible, compassionate, affordable breastfeeding help out there.
I have led a monthly breastfeeding support group for six years now, and I can’t tell you how relieved breastfeeding mothers are when they gather in a room together and realize that all those conflicted feelings are completely normal. It is such a relief to them to know they are not alone. They relax a little then. And that is often when they start to truly enjoy breastfeeding.
Almost every time, it does happen: breastfeeding becomes enjoyable, second nature, comfortable—often lovely. When it happens varies for each woman, depending on her circumstances, support, and baby. Usually it happens after a few weeks, when any initial soreness disappears, and mothers actually get to see their babies growing from the milk their body produces. (Even moms with true low milk supply often are able to reach a point of acceptance with whatever supplementation is necessary, and are able to find peace with the amount of breastmilk they are able to offer.)
I remember when I began to relax into nursing. I was sitting in the armchair in my living room. My son was born in winter, and now spring was just beginning to blossom—little buds waving on the branches of the tree outside our window. I had just nursed my son, and he popped off the breast, milk dribbling out of the side of his mouth, his eyes fluttering closed, and a giant grin splashed across his face. I had heard the phrase “milk drunk” before, and now I saw it. It was bliss, pure and utter happiness. And it was contagious. I felt so content there. I was so glad that I had persevered and gotten to where I was with breastfeeding.
If you are at the beginning, know that chances are, you will eventually fall in love with breastfeeding (a small minority of women never enjoy breastfeeding, but most do). If things are so hard that you’re not sure how you’ll make it to the next feeding—just take it day by day, feeding by feeding, and you will get to the other side. Go to a breastfeeding support meeting. Meet other moms who are feeling as you are, and talk to other moms who made it through to the sweet spot of breastfeeding.
Even when you get there, know that it is normal to have rough days as your baby gets older. Teething, growth spurts, and other fussy phases can all drive a nursing mother mad! We have all been there. You have the right to complain. You have the right to vent. It’s all part of the cycle of life you are in with your baby, and with breastfeeding.
But all the difficult moments will be interspersed with the most delicious milky smiles, and the coziest snuggles. You’ll get there, in your own way, in your own time.
Photo courtesy of Flickr
A version of this post first appeared in Natural Child Magazine