When I was pregnant with my son, I felt confident that I was prepared for breastfeeding. I had done my research, taken a class, and knew I was armed with support (my mom has a PhD in breastfeeding best practices.) In my mind, my experience was going to be blissful and beautiful; I was going to immediately love breastfeeding and it was going to come naturally to me like it seemed to for so many women. But when reality hit and I was met with one unanticipated obstacle after another, I wasn’t prepared for the rollercoaster of emotions and self-doubt I would experience.
My breastfeeding journey was off to a rough start from the beginning. Unfortunately, I had a complication from the epidural and was leaking spinal fluid. This meant I had to lie completely flat at all times or I would be in excruciating pain. Lying flat is not an ideal way to learn to breastfeed your newborn, but I had no choice.
My recovery was prolonged, so I was breastfeeding from this position for well over a week. My mom and husband were integral in helping to support me with positioning during this critical time, or breastfeeding wouldn’t have happened at all. It was beyond tough. This, coupled with my son’s tongue tie that prevented a proper latch, made the initial weeks extremely challenging. I was only a couple weeks in and already felt like I was failing.
I finally recovered from the spinal leak and my son had his tongue tie revised. We were a few weeks in, somehow miraculously still breastfeeding, and I felt a new hope. This was when I was going to find that love for breastfeeding that I heard about so often. It was all going to come together now!
But that wasn’t the case.
Almost immediately after I was able to sit upright again, I developed my first round of mastitis. I had a raging fever, my breast was angry and sore, and breastfeeding was incredibly painful. Antibiotics helped me get over it in a few days, but by this point, I felt emotionally and physically drained.
Over the next few months, my breastfeeding journey continued to present me with unexpected obstacles. Mastitis came back to haunt me several times, as did a lovely thing called a “milk bleb” (sounds cute, but it most definitely is not) which is a painful milk blister on the nipple.
I saw lactation consultants to help with latching issues and to manage my forceful letdown. It was theorized that my son was getting too much foremilk and not enough hindmilk, which was contributing to his reflux and bouts of inconsolable crying.
My son had multiple food intolerances and I had to complete several elimination diets to determine what was causing him gastrointestinal distress. There was a period of time when the only way he would stop crying was if he was nursing, and my days felt like a never-ending blur of exhausting cluster feeds, sore breasts, and newborn screams.
Related: Registered dietitian and nutritionist Sherry Coleman Collins gives mamas advice on how to set realistic expectations for healthy eating & how to potentially prevent peanut allergies by early introduction
Then one day, out of the blue, my son decided he wasn’t going to nurse anymore. I went back to see the lactation consultant, but no matter what tricks we tried, he was determined to persevere through his self-initiated nursing strike. My mental health was taking a toll at this point and as a result, we tried to introduce formula, but he refused it.
Out of necessity, I turned to exclusive pumping for a period of time, as it was the only way I could get my baby to eat. I was exhausted and chronically anxious about what I was eating, how what I ate would potentially affect my son, and whether my baby was going to eat.
It pained me to admit it, but I hated breastfeeding. Reality was falling very short of my expectations, and I was struggling to reconcile what was happening with my vision of what it was “supposed” to be like. I was drowning in feelings of guilt, shame and inadequacy. In my mind, I was failing.
Now looking back, I see how unfair and untrue that was. In reality, I was incredibly strong, resilient and determined in the face of extreme challenges. I was being a mother.
Breastfeeding can be incredibly hard. The idea that it is going to be a magical, blissful and “natural” experience from the get-go is a myth for many. I had set myself up for failure by setting unrealistic expectations. I was unprepared for it to be so hard, for it to feel so foreign, and to not immediately love the experience. The truth is, this is much more common than is openly talked about.
If you are struggling with breastfeeding, I encourage you to open the dialogue with other women. Sure, there are some unicorn moms out there where breastfeeding truly is blissful from the beginning, but once I began sharing my struggles, I realized I was far from alone.
The majority of women I opened up to had some sort of shared experience navigating the inevitable challenges of breastfeeding. For example, I had one friend that was also cursed with recurrent mastitis, and together we became experts at identifying and clearing our clogged ducts before they turned into full-fledged mastitis. We would troubleshoot, support each other through the pain, and share what new tricks worked for us. It was so helpful to have someone experiencing the same struggles as me when previously, I had felt so alone.
I persevered with breastfeeding, and after six difficult months, my journey ultimately turned beautiful. When my son was eating solids and breastfeeding was not his sole source of nourishment, the pressure was off of both of us and we fell into a (dare I say) “natural” rhythm. It finally felt how I envisioned it would—and I enjoyed it! I breastfed my son until he was almost 2 years old, which is something that at one point in time I would have never thought possible.
If you are in the thick of breastfeeding challenges, let me promise you this—you’re not failing, mama. It is perfectly OK to not immediately love it. It is perfectly fine to need help. It is perfectly normal for it to feel like the hardest thing you have ever done. It is perfectly OK to switch to pumping or formula if that is what is best for you and your baby. Your wants and needs matter, too.
So be kind to yourself. Reach out to other moms in the early days of breastfeeding—it’s amazing what social support can do.
Wherever you are in your journey, you are right on track. It is your journey, your timeline, your story. And mama, let me assure you—you are doing amazing.