For something humans have done since the dawn of time, breastfeeding can feel strange at first, and even downright painful. From nipple chafing, latching issues, making too much or not enough milk, breastfeeding can also be anxiety-inducing. Your baby might be born, but your body isn't done changing yet. Here, 11 mothers explain exactly what it feels like to breastfeed.
1. "During the initial let-down [Editor's note: the let-down is the sensation of your milk flow starting], my breasts felt sort of like the way my stomach would drop on a rollercoaster. It feels like a whirling dervish dancing from the top of my breasts and making way towards my nipples – like the tingly feeling you get when your foot falls asleep. Nursing also made me extremely thirsty during feedings and afterwards, so I'd always have to chug water." – Zlata, 35
2. "Breastfeeding feels like a twenty-four-seven obligation where I'm at the mercy of my breasts. Ultimately, I’ve committed to sacrificing my comfort for my son’s wellbeing. I don't know how anyone can be offended by a literal miracle like breastfeeding. I try to be respectful of others in public, but I honestly could not care less if someone's feelings get hurt by it. It's an accomplishment that I'm most proud of. As a black woman, breastfeeding often feels like a privilege. I often seek out information [about breastfeeding], but the pages and hashtags are usually consumed with women who look nothing like me. It’s only until I narrow down my search to include the word 'black' that the results begin to feel inclusive. I use my own social media as a way to be a resource for other women who feel like they don’t see themselves. When I feed my son in public or if I seek out groups we can join, there have been instances of verbalized pity, shock, surprise, or condescending advice from other women. I often feel awkward and a sense of pressure to be a 'poster child' of sorts for black moms who are 'just like you' and breastfeed their babies too. It is imperative to me that it be normalized because through this journey I have learned just how uninformed most people are." – Gabrielle, 27
3. "As cheesy as it sounds, it really is a wonderful way to bond with your baby. There are, of course, some difficult parts too: like the pain of the actual feeding, struggling to get your baby to latch [to your nipple], or not producing enough milk for your baby. It is so defeating when your baby is struggling to latch. They are hungry and crying and you know you have the solution right there but their little mouths haven't quite figured out what to do. Or they'll get distracted and pull off and the baby gets a nice facial of breast milk! It's a wide range of frustration, sadness, anger, and then sweet, sweet relief when they figure it out – all of the emotions! Another surprise of breastfeeding: everything I own is covered in a layer of breastmilk now: clothes, furniture, etc. For me, I had a lot of milk so when the let-down happened, it would literally shoot out of my breast. It was a race to get the milk into the baby." – Madeline, 31
4. "At first, it felt like my skin was actually being pulled off and it hurt so much. It's like your skin is covered in scabs and everything feels raw and open (it's not, but it just feels like it is), and then rubbed with sandpaper. But, after only a week or so it starts to feel good! Especially when it's been a few hours and your baby is ready to nurse again – or if it's been a little too long and you're feeling 'full', it can be so satisfying. It's almost like when you can finally pee after holding it in too long. You can feel the pressure leaving. It honestly was almost shocking how it could go from so painful to no pain at all so quickly."–Alessandra, 29
5. "I distinctly remember on the second night wanting to cry because my nipples were overly sensitive and tingly. My baby wanted to nurse non-stop, but that sensitive, tingly feeling was making my stomach turn. It wasn't exactly painful, just an uncomfortable feeling and my reflex was to want it to stop...but then you have a crying baby. After two weeks, I felt like my nipples desensitized enough and it became comfortable and enjoyable. From an emotional perspective, I like sitting down with my daughter and taking the time to cuddle and feed her. And physically, it's a soft, gentle pulling sensation that is quite relaxing. After a couple of weeks, we got into a comfortable rhythm. Childbirth and breastfeeding can feel a bit invasive. You feel the conflict of your body not being your own, and the love you have for your baby. Mentally, you want to breastfeed, but I think it takes a little bit of time – at least the first go around – for your body to get on-board with the physical side of things."–Lucy, 27
6. "My nipples felt extremely sore for the first week or so when my babies were getting comfortable latching on. The times when it was painful in the earlier stages were also definitely times of bonding. I still vividly remember seeing my babies looking up at me while breastfeeding. In comparison, the memories I have from when I bottle-fed are not as vivid. I also became much more aware of how my actions directly affected my children as a breastfeeding mom. I will never forget my daughter's pediatrician warning me that I couldn't eat pizza anymore because the tomato sauce was irritating my daughter's stomach. It was a sobering moment that made me realize I was so connected to my babies, that even my food choices played a role in their wellbeing."–Erica, 33
7. "Honestly, I hated it in the beginning. My nipples were always sore and raw. Three days after giving birth, my breasts became engorged [Editor's note: engorgement is when breasts become "swollen, tender, and firm" following delivery]. That was in some ways more painful than birth itself. While I was able to have an epidural [to ease labor pains], there was nothing that would make the engorgement feel better. People recommended hot showers or trying to pump a bit to relieve the pressure. The reality is that I just needed to let the pain pass. Once I was able to regulate my supply through a cycle of feeding and pumping, it started to get more comfortable. I would use nipple butter for relief, which helped cool and soothe cracked nipples, but after about six or eight weeks, there was no longer any need. "–Dara, 34
8. "I had issues breastfeeding when I got home from the hospital after giving birth. My nipples were cracked and breastfeeding was super painful. As much as I wanted to give up, I was determined, so I scheduled a home visit with a lactation consultant. It made a huge difference. When you are breastfeeding correctly you don't feel anything – you don't even feel the milk draining from your breast. The baby is just suckling but there is no pain is associated. You just look down and see a baby attached."–Jenelle, 28
9. "Usually if I’m not paying attention, I don’t feel anything unless she pulls off suddenly. When babies pull back while still latched, it feels like if you got your nipple stuck in a zipper for a second. The pain doesn’t linger, though, so as soon as she is off, it’s fine. Otherwise, once you get used to it, the sucking is almost not even noticeable, especially after the baby has latched for a couple of seconds. I know some people can’t feel their let-down, but mine feels like someone is pushing a square with sharp edges through a round tube for a few seconds, with the tube being my milk duct. It’s not nipple pain at all, more like deep inside the breast and it only lasts for a second. I still leak regularly and I can always tell when it’s starting because I feel that weird sensation. "–Caitlin, 29
10. "The first time a baby latches on is one of the most painful things you'll ever experience. Babies' gums are strong even if they don't have teeth. A couple of days of that leads to soreness, but then it subsides and you fall into a rhythm. The let-down literally feels like how it sounds: a feeling of a gush and a subsequent emptying out. I personally enjoyed the quiet time alone with my babies when I breastfed and it was just me and them. I had to make it a point to try not to multitask (it's very tempting) and to turn my attention solely to the little person staring up at me."–Kaamna, 38
11. "For something that is supposed to be so natural, it was one of the hardest things I have ever done. When I discovered the reason was that my son wasn't latching well, I started exclusive pumping which felt like getting milked. [Editor's note: exclusive pumping is when a baby's diet consists of only bottle-fed milk, pumped from their mother.] The pressure of a good breast pump is uncomfortable, and made me feel like I was chained to a machine for hours at a time. A new exclusively pumping mom needs to pump minimum eight times a day. It also made me feel stressed: what’s my output? How many ounces? Why am I an ounce lower than I was yesterday? Why is my right breast such a slacker? These thoughts ran through my head all the time. Breastfeeding is an emotional roller coaster, but it’s so worth it."–Suzanne, 28
Answers have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
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