Trouble Breastfeeding? Here’s Why It Can Be Hard At First

It's no secret - Breastfeeding isn't always easy in the beginning! Our guest article, written by Emily Silver, a Family Nurse Practitioner and IBCLC, discusses early nursing challenges and exactly why learning to breastfeed can be difficult for some new moms.

Authored By:

Emily Silver, FNP, IBCLC

Emily Silver is a Family Nurse Practitioner and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. She is passionate about providing trustworthy education, support, and coaching in an honest, judgment-free way, through her learning platform NAPS™. Emily's honest, real-life parenting advice is based on her own experience as a nurse and as a mother to three young girls.

Learn more at NAPS™, follow Emily on Instagram at Nurture by Naps, or for more uncensored parenting advice listen to her podcast Unswaddled.

I was a labor and delivery nurse and then a Nurse Practitioner in a private OB/GYN practice for a little over 10 years combined. So, when one of our Nurture by NAPS members asks me about breastfeeding, I have lots of advice to offer. I can recommend nipple cream, help them increase milk production, work together on their baby’s latch, or anything else they might need. But this past weekend at our Pre Baby Bootcamp event, someone unmuted themselves and yelled out in front of 100 parents who were listening in, “what’s the most important thing to know about breastfeeding, if you had to pick one thing?” For a moment, I was surprised into silence. There’s a lot of information out there; a lot of tips and tricks that can help you breastfeed more effectively. But the number one thing I want people to know about it is exactly what I finally answered back: breastfeeding is hard!

I don’t say this to scare people off — actually, it’s quite the opposite. I want to make sure that the sacrifices and hard work of these parents are normalized. I also hope that when parents have this line in the back of their head, that when they are really in it and they encounter challenges or things are hard, that they are then not hard on themselves. Rather, I’d want them to instead take a big breath, know that they are not alone, and know where to seek support. So, let’s talk about what breastfeeding looks like and why I say it’s hard.

If You Have Trouble Breastfeeding, Know You're Not Alone

Honestly, first and foremost, just having a newborn is hard! Trust me, I’ve had 3 of them in the last 6 years and each one presents its own unique challenges and situations. For all of my girls, I breastfed and even pumped and dabbled in combo feeding. For breastfeeding parents, we’re giving a lot of our time, energy, and stamina just to feed that new baby. It takes patience and knowledge and equipment and patience again.

Newborns have itty bitty stomachs, so they need to eat more often than older babies. They actually don’t eat that much more or less than older babies, but they need to take smaller amounts throughout the day due to their tiny stomach sizes. For a breastfeeding parent, that means feeding the baby around every two hours, throughout a 24-hour cycle. That’s another reason why even just getting started with breastfeeding can feel difficult, because parents are tired. Either their newborn is waking up to be fed or we are setting alarm clocks to get them up and ensure they’re eating – which means when sleep happens, it’s fragmented.

Breastfeeding is a new experience for both mom and baby, often requiring learning and patience, so those first days of getting your baby to latch can feel challenging. Commonly, women are told that pain is normal or that their nipples need to “toughen up” and, later, we find breastfeeding moms who now have nipple damage and a painful latch, but are toughing it through or weaning their baby early because they can’t take the discomfort any longer. Let’s get clear on this right now: just because pain can be common, does not mean it’s normal. Learning to get a deep, effective latch, holding your baby in a nursing position that works for you both, and getting comfortable with feeling them suck and hearing them swallow are all important aspects of getting into a breastfeeding routine, but pain is an added element that you should not have to go through.

Finding the Breastfeeding Routine That Works Best

Speaking of feeling your baby sucking and listening to him or her swallowing, breastfeeding can also feel hard for parents because, as you are learning to do it, it can seem unclear if it’s working and if your baby is getting enough – It’s kind of a total mind boggle. As the weeks go by, you’ll start to get comfortable with what your breasts feel like before and after a feed, hearing your baby swallow (or take those big gulps), watching their soft, relaxed disposition after a feed, and counting those wet and dirty diapers to know that breastfeeding is sustaining and nourishing your little one.

Over weeks and months, as your baby grows, feedings will move further apart in frequency and babies get better at settling down and self-soothing. You figure out how to tag-team the nights with your partner, so you can piece together more sleep. You learn to get yourself comfortable first and then latch your baby, so that you have a deep latch that feels comfortable. Then, all of a sudden, you go up a size in diapers and change out their clothes not just for seasons but because they are getting bigger, and you see…it’s working.

In the meantime, I’m telling you breastfeeding is hard in advance – not just to normalize it, but so you can set up your support system and helpers now while educating yourself as much as possible ahead of time. That way, when your newborn finally makes his or her long-awaited appearance, you can begin breastfeeding confidently, understand what challenges you may encounter, and meet your feeding goals. Every new mother should see a lactation consultant when breastfeeding or pumping, even if they are not experiencing any of these or other common challenges. A lactation consultant’s insight and education will come in handy for anything from getting a deeper latch, to positioning, learning more about feeding, sleep schedules, pumping, and going back to work. A knowledgeable lactation consultant can cover it all – the good and the bad, the easy and the hard – and they should do it in an open and non-judgmental way that helps you and your family find your way.

Speaking of finding your way, I would also recommend that you not be too committed to one way of doing things. Babies are notoriously unpredictable, so having flexibility is essential when it comes to your routines with a newborn. Pumping can be a game changer when you’re tired or worn out, if you have pain or are hoping to share overnight feeding responsibilities with your partner. Doing things differently from the way you originally envisioned doesn’t mean you’ve failed!

Don't Be Hard on Yourself Over Trouble Breastfeeding!

That brings me to my last piece of advice: go easy on yourself. Parenting has changed a lot since you were a child; there’s a lot of information out there and a lot of opinions. Try to remember that giving your child love, safety, and nutrition is enough. You don’t have to do everything perfectly. If you need help, reach out – even if just to your healthcare provider. There are a lot of resources out there, but they can’t support you unless you make the call. As I said, breastfeeding is hard, but it doesn’t have to feel impossible. Support is just an email or phone call away.

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