When Breastfeeding Sacrifice Turns Into Suffering

Sacrifice, suffering, and breastfeeding

Mothers are amazing creatures.

They spend nine months growing a tiny human, hours or even days bringing them into the world, and years of their life focused mainly on raising them into decent humans.

While we hear in the media countless stories of mothers who are uninterested in, abusive of, or resentful of their children, most mothers truly give all they can to their little ones.

The need and willingness to sacrifice for one’s children is a constant pull. Women often find themselves willing to give up things that had once seemed intensely important to them in order to do what they feel is best for their children. From careers to flat stomachs, women give up many things, often without regret.

While we live in a culture where the religion of self and cult of personality seems respected above all, and women are encouraged ad nauseum to practice self care and take some “me time,” mothers often find themselves an exception to this cultural norm. Despite cultural pressures to be selfish, mothers can’t seem to help giving for their children.

I love this about the work of motherhood – I love the sacrifice and the self change that it encourages. I think the push to look away from the mirror and into the eyes of those around us is a purifying and holy thing. 

Breastfeeding is one of the early ways that we learn to sacrifice for our children. It takes countless hours, it often interrupts sleep, it requires constant contact, fuel, and nurturing. While a natural function, it can also involve pain, infection, and so much more.

Sometimes motherly sacrifice becomes suffering.

I heard Dr Jack Newman speak a few years ago. He is an amazing wealth of knowledge about breastfeeding and has published extensively and fearlessly on the subject. The thing that struck me from his presentation was when he said that people have no idea how much pain women are willing to go through in order to breastfeed their babies. He, and countless other lactation consultants, have seen women cracked, bleeding, infected, and in horrendous pain – for months – simply pushing through in an effort to give their children the gift of breastmilk.

sacrifice, suffering, and breastfeeding

I had a friend call me recently with questions about breastfeeding. Her older baby has been causing her pain from day one and nursing around the clock. Experts have brushed off her concerns and referred to her low threshold for pain.

And she has persisted nursing through what can only be described as suffering, because she has a burning and inherent desire to give her baby the best – to be a good mother.

I told her how incredible it is that she has done this, and how important I think it is that we, as mothers, sacrifice for our children. But there comes a point where sacrifice is suffering and we must seek help.

We must reach out.

Mothers are often afraid to ask for help. Breastfeeding should not be suffering. Ideally it is an enjoyable experience for both mom and her baby.

But moms don’t want to trouble anyone. They don’t want to admit that they are having a hard time. They don’t want to own up to their own vulnerability or perceived failures. They fear that help indicates failure.

Sadly, sometimes when women DO reach out they get some very bad or negative feedback. And sometimes there doesn’t seem to be anyone around who can help.

Sometimes we are in a place in life where we can reach out, sometimes we are at a place where we have the strength to reach. You know where you are.

Here are some truths about breastfeeding:

Breastfeeding can be hard.

Breastfeeding is often exhausting.

Sometimes the things that are best for our children are hard for us.

Sometimes we are tempted to give up.

Here are some falsehoods about breastfeeding:

There is shame is seeking help.

There is shame in admitting we are struggling.

You must continue doing something that is painful forever and without help or risk being a bad mother.

The balance between suffering and sacrifice is found in community, vulnerability, and seeking help.

I think our independence sometimes gets in the way of our sanity. It sounds simple, but there is great power in community. There is great power in vulnerability. There is great power in asking for and accepting help.

sacrifice, suffering, and breastfeeding

If you are struggling with breastfeeding or mothering or any aspect therein, I am not saying to give up and take a spa day. That isn’t necessarily the answer. I am saying to reach out. Think of a friend. Think of a trusted professional. Ask for help. Find necessary breastfeeding resources. They exist.

Don’t wait until you are suffering. Don’t wait until your nipples are cracked and bleeding and you feel like punching a wall. The relationship of breastfeeding DOES have a learning curve and can have challenges. But it is not meant to be suffering. It should not leave lasting scars.

Tell someone what is going on.

I know this can be hard and I know it can feel like failure, but it isn’t. It is how we are meant to survive.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to raise healthy children in a vacuum. Healthy children thrive when raised by healthy mothers – emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically healthy mothers. Children need a community of support and so do their mothers.

Find community groups. (I know it’s hard to go out.) Call a friend. Call a loved relative. Ask a trusted professional for help. Find out if there are options.

It sounds like a cheesy punch line or cat poster, but it isn’t.

We need each other.

Photo credit: Harald Groven via DesignHunt / CC BY-SADFID – UK Department for International Development via Remodel Blog / CC BY


11 thoughts on “When Breastfeeding Sacrifice Turns Into Suffering”

  1. Never once in this article does it say “it’s okay to stop breastfeeding when it becomes suffering” because it could be best for your baby and you to do. It only says you can seek help for breastfeeding. That’s exactly why mothers don’t seek help at all because If the right thing for them to do is to stop, after they have weighed all their options, they will be ostracized for it. Because “breast is best”. But in all honesty “fed is best.”

  2. I wish I had this article 6 years ago. The Ped nurse scared the hell out of us so I switched to exclusively pumping every 2 hours…I mean EVERY 2 hours. They made us feel like CPS was going to be at the door if I didn’t. Now my HMO offers more neonatal classes and beast feeding support but I got almost none. I was too poor to hire a lactation consultant and too stressed to go to La Leche league to chat.

    Thank god an online group told me for sanity sake I must cut back over night. My baby wasn’t sleeping but at least I could skip some pumping and feed him and then try to sleep again. I actually had a lot more milk in the morning pump. Yes at a point we supplemented with a home made goat milk blend, but we gained a little sanity and made it to 1 year exclusively pumping(and cut back to every 4 hours during the day at work). It was still a big sacrifice but it was a better middle ground compromises for sanity. what kind Mommy would I have been in a mental institution, he needed me at home.

  3. Very well written and great encouragement. It took us 6-8 weeks to really get breast feeding going even though some were saying it wouldn’t work out.

    In response to Erica, I feel there’s plenty of support for moms who may not have the same outcomes with breast feeding or for those that choose to bottle feed/formula instead. We can’t deny that breast is best and yes, it’s crucial to support moms who can’t/won’t breast feed but those of us who have the option, be it with some serious struggle at times, we need cheerleaders and this type of support!
    I felt the full spectrum– folks cheering me on, folks telling me it’s ok to quit (even if I didn’t want to) and folks telling me it just wouldn’t work. While I had permission to choose not to breastfeed, I ultimately needed and wanted mega support and empathy to continue trying to make it work.

  4. Agreeing with Olga— I was told by OB nurse(s) (or was it the hospital LC?! I can’t remember.) that breastfeeding will hurt for up to the first 8 weeks, so I lived with pain (and thus lowered milk production) for those 8 weeks before going for help and learning that was completely incorrect. I’ve heard from a number of women that when it isn’t easy at the beginning, their ob/nurses immediately say things like, “It’s ok, breastfeeding’s not for everyone.” Erica, there’s a ton of support for not breastfeeding.

  5. I know this sounds crazy and I haven’t told anyone online yet, but I have been nursing my sweet daughter for three and a half years and it has always been excruciating….i just blamed it on different things, teething, the parasite she got, the detox from the parasite and I really wanted to nurse her…my supply stayed up because I literally nursed her around the clock practically her whole life…this spring it got so bad and everything else had cleared up and I was still bruised, blanching, crying once she finally fell asleep which was rare she was still waking every 2-4 hours, so I finally called a LLL but we live in the boonies and there is no community here and i had never been able to drive to one alone cause she won’t do over an hour in the car…well it took months and I had to wean at night which did not go well to finally go to a meeting and find out that I have been nursing a child with a stage four lip tongue and posterior tongue tie(can’t even get your fingers under her tongue)…so we did all our homework learned that this is tied to MTHFR which would explain much in our lives why it took so long for her to detox from the parasite and why we have had 8, hitherto, unexplained miscarriages, to name a few…we scheduled the procedure for the frenectomy and we had all follow-up care in place with the LC and a craniosacral therapist, but in the consult before the procedure the doctor refused to do the procedure BECAUSE we were still nursing and she did not want the responsibility of the possibility that this could end our nursing relationship….i have never been more shocked, we tried everything, we explained that we were at a standstill, we couldn’t wean more it wasn’t working and we needed this even if it ended it(but I’m her mother and if she is still in this with me when we are both struggling so and both in pain…a little sore mouth is not gonna stop her) anyways we left without help or treatment…we grieved and tried again to find a doctor who would help us and not make her be in a separate room…we have found one after calling 12 practices and we will be driving 2 hours on Thursday to receive treatment, praying she is as calm and ready as she was last time and that all our prayer and the homeopathic remedies we have for her will have us in the place of readiness…we haven’t mentioned nursing this time-sadly, I didn’t want to hide it because it is NOT wrong but I want this for my sweet girl so if she asks for ‘some mama’ to get her courage up which she probably will, we will be asking for a fee minutes of privacy and then once it is done I will be nursing her right there for all to see…this is so beyond hard…if I had been able to find help or known I needed it earlier then she would already have had the procedure because then my pain and her latch would matter, but because she is older and ‘obviously doesn’t need it for nutrition any more’ then we , what, just keep suffering…not to mention not sleeping and not able to properly brush teeth and the speech issues she will have if this is not corrected and the postural issues that are affected….oh we learned that along with the gene, my husband and I are both tongue tie and our sleep issues have never been connected to it…when we can save enough to afford it, we will all be getting the procedure…but trying to take care of this sweet , very frustrated little girl who just wants to have ‘some mama’. Thanks for listening…sorry rough night again last night and tears are flowing today:(

    1. Sara, you are amazing and brave! hoping everything worked out. Your story is covered in motherly love– I’m hoping you are met with the same kind of determination, patience and love as you seek solutions for you and yours.

  6. Being a wimp is not for me. I’m nearly 50 and breastfeeding for 7 years. I’m still breastfeeding my 2.5 year old. I had both babies all natural. There were plenty of problems, heck I’m one of those rare people who kept getting mastitis. I’ve had every problem you can imagine and severe pain, no big deal, deal with it. If you approach breastfeeding knowing how important it is for your babies health, you will endure and figure every problem out. You can find all of the answers to your problems online or by calling Le Leche League. Breastfeeding is not sacrifice, it’s natural. In human history your baby would have died if you didn’t make it happen, so this is my attitude towards it. Do it for as long as possible too because it can save your babies life from illnesses like the flu.

  7. Breastfeeding is the most natural thing in the world. Sadly it doesn’t come easy to many women. I am one of those! I had my baby via C-section, taken to the NICU, where he was given a bottle of donor’s breast milk, despite me asking for a cup or a syringe to be used, and of course, then refused to latch on for 7 weeks. In that time I exclusively pumped. It was grueling, so exhausting! Nothing worse than having your baby cry and being connected to tubes and bottles. Or pumping and pouring into a bottle for my mom or husband to feed him because I had NO pumped milk left, my baby was eating faster than I was producing, and I was feeling distressed and despaired. Yet, I persevered, and my baby did not have a sip of formula. I saw 3 lactation consultants who just said to keep up pumping and offering the breast, that there was nothing wrong with my baby. His pediatrician said the same. Still I felt that he had a posterior tongue tie so I took him to a preferred provider, who said he did have a posterior tongue tie, but it was so minor that he would not correct it because probably he would not help. But I kept going. I kept going because one of my co-workers shared her almost identical experience, and her baby DID learn to latch on after about 3 months. I kept going because I had researched that most babies under those circumstances will learn to latch on somewhere around 8 weeks. None of the healthcare providers, nurses, lactation consultants or anyone else said that. I was lucky that I am an older mother, that I had years and years to read and research about breastfeeding, while dealing with infertility. Most people would have sadly given up, it just seemed so hopeless at the time. I cannot blame anyone for reaching for a can of Enfamil. My miracle happened one warm Saturday morning, on his 7th week and 3rd day. I offered a nipple, and he latched on and nursed like it was the most natural thing in the world. Because it is.

    1. Well said. Sometimes it is natural for the mother — I was soooo ready and excited!!! — but not so natural for the baby. Our first weeks were full of lactation contraptions, a light therapy blanket for his jaundice, mixing formula with breast milk because my supply kept slowing down from his not nursing…

      Women don’t need judgement about this stuff. We need facts and history, we need medical/professional assistance, and we need to make final decisions based on the conclusions we draw will our loved ones, our cultures, our values, and accurate information.

      What 25% of other people think has zero bearing on whether, how, or where I nurse my child. I had enough bad info as it were — from people saying the baby will let me know when it’s time to wean. After three and a half hard long years, I had to draw the line and was left with a visually altered body, significant ageing of my face, and exhaustion. And shame from those who THEN chastised me for nursing too LONG.

      Inform women of facts and choices. Accept that human lives are not cookie-cut. And as Dr Tiller always said, “Trust Women.”

  8. Great article. I have almost finished breastfeeding after 10.5 years. The first baby caused so much pain, bleeding, mastitis etc, but I pushed on through severe latching pain for 8 weeks. I had the help of a lactation consultant at 2 weeks, and she helped correct his latch. She said it would eventually be pain free, and she was right. I was so happy to finally be able to feed painlessly after 8 weeks! He only ever had my milk, and only once had ebm in a bottle. Honestly, I completely forgot there was such a thing as formula, and gave him the precious 50ml of EBM I had hand expressed two days prior to my breasts going on strike with mastitis. I didn’t have any more milk that night. My LC said to hire a hospital grade pump in the morning. I was like, but what about overnight?!? It still didn’t occur to me to send my husband out to get formula. Fortunately, my son slept a few hours after the bottle, and when he woke and latched on there must have been some milk there, because he drank and slept. I went on to feed him for 5 years! I fed him through my next pregnancy, and fed her until she was nearly six years. I fed her through my third pregnancy, and with the new baby, again had problems. These boys just latch so strongly! My LC confirmed he had a posterior tongue tie, but that he was doing well coordinating his suck, so she gave me advice on positioning etc, and the problems resolved (after another bout of mastitis). He is nearly five years old, and still feeds every few nights. He told me there was no milk a few weeks ago, but it appears to have come back again lol. I am so happy that I pushed through at the beginning, and that the people around me didn’t express anything but belief that I could do it. Once you’re over the first few months, breastfeeding really is a breeze, especially in the middle of the night. It’s great for calming tantrums and meltdowns, and for soothing hurts. It’s not just about the milk.

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