Why is Breastfeeding So Very HARD for So Many of Us?

When I meet with new moms, it’s amazing how often the topic becomes breastfeeding.When I meet with new moms, it’s amazing how often the topic turns to the troubles they are having with breastfeeding. I hear about the struggles; the infections; the cracking; the latch; the tongue tie; the lack of sleep; I hear it all. What I often hear the most is mothers being shocked that something ‘so natural’ can, in reality, be so danged difficult.

Why? Why is something that’s supposed to be the most natural thing on earth so hard for many of us? I remember lamenting to another mama that mama dogs make it look so easy, and I didn’t understand why puppies could nurse more easily than my own son.

It’s possible that modern birth practices, which often include surgical birth, various medications, and separation of mom from her baby can cause problems with breastfeeding. The impact of cesarean birth on breastfeeding is well-documented, though strides are being made for mothers who need to have c-sections to reduce that disruption between mother and child in those important first bonding moments.

It’s also possible that even in vaginal births, there are issues that can make a difference. There is also research showing that medications like pitocin can increase jaundice in the newborn, which can make baby lethargic, can cause breastfeeding troubles as well. Other studies have found that pain medication given in labor can have a negative impact on breastfeeding.

It’s also feasible that separation of the mom from her baby during that “golden hour,” right after birth disrupts the mother/baby dyad when biology needs them to be together. (I certainly felt like the, “We need to weigh and clean your baby,” standard procedure caused problems with initiating breastfeeding with my first baby.) Now mamas are asking for that time back, planning in their birth plans and with their providers beforehand to do as little as possible in that first hour that is so important to mama and her newly born babe.

Maybe modern medical procedures and traditions, while they can be lifesaving, can also disrupt breastfeeding.

Maybe breastfeeding is hard because we just forgot how to do it.

Breasts, as well as every other specifically female body part, are constantly questioned in their ability to actually function properly. It’s commonly believed that women are created with some major flaws that can be improved upon with newfangled things like formula, toughening up, and disinfectant. Oh, and don’t forget that breasts can’t be any type of nourishment because they’re too often viewed in a sexual light only.

In the US, an entire generation of women pretty much avoided breastfeeding for man-made options considered superior. In the early 70s, women who breastfed were considered ‘too poor’ to give their baby ‘the best’ (formula) and it’s taken a few generations to come back to the realization that though fed is best, nature’s first choice has always been Mama’s Milk.

Maybe we have trouble with breastfeeding because there just aren’t enough of us who grew up watching breastfeeding and not enough of us who have older, wiser, women in our lives who can show us how it’s done.

I am sure all of these things contribute, but there is another thought that runs through my mind sometimes.

Maybe breastfeeding is supposed to be a little hard.

Yes, you read that right.

Maybe there is meant to be a learning curve.  Maybe there is value in learning the dance between us and our new baby as we navigate breastfeeding, get to know each other’s cues, and figure out what works. Is it possible that there is value in the hard days and the harder nights? Can we look at the trouble as an opportunity to learn together and to grow in each other as this new coupling of mother and baby?

What if the sacrifice and the tears that so often accompany the stages of breastfeeding have a purpose?

I’m not saying breastfeeding should be suffering, and that women should suffer at all costs. Please do not read that any differently than intended.

I have to admit, though, that I am grateful for my breastfeeding journeys and I’m okay now, looking back, with the difficulty.

I remember my first baby who was tired and jaundiced. I was recovering from a long labor. I remember sitting on my bed, holding my baby while we both cried and I tried to read in a book how to properly feed him. I wasn’t suffering. It wasn’t terrible. But it wasn’t easy either and it was months before things were running smoothly and the entire journey involved learning. This was the same with all my four children. I kept hearing about how it got easier, how it was like riding a bike. I, instead, felt like I was always trying to re-learn how to ride a unicycle, often while I was juggling flaming swords in the air. It was never ‘so easy because it’s natural,’ and…

I learned to give up a lot of myself for those babies.

I learned to sacrifice; I learned to read a baby’s cues; I learned to trust my instincts; I learned to sit and be still. Eventually, I learned to trust myself and my body and my ability to do this mothering thing – but it didn’t happen overnight. I learned love through service and disappointment. I knew what I wanted to do for my child and the lengths to which I was ready to go in order for him to be fed by my breasts. It was a huge sacrifice, and a huge learning curve, and one I wasn’t prepared for if totally honest.

Related: Many Moms May Have Been Taught to Breastfeed Incorrectly: Surprising New Research

Now that first baby is quickly turning into a teenager and, let’s just say, it’s a good thing I learned to love him back then!

To all you moms out there struggling through some aspect of your nursing journey, whether it be latch issues, tongue tie, pain, lack of sleep, mastitis, biting, toddler pinching/scratching, nursing strikes, over or under production, or anything else – I am sorry. It genuinely SUCKS when something so “natural” is so, so hard. More, it’s hard for those of us who desperately want to nurse our children but struggle to constantly hear how ‘easy’ it is and how ‘natural’ it is when the only thing that feels natural is wanting to give up. Mamas, we feel you.

It’s humbling.

It’s painful.

It’s crushing.

You are not alone.

Maybe another reason breastfeeding can be so hard is because women need each other but we can have a hard time reaching out. The struggles of early motherhood almost force us to reach out for help. And in today’s world, where all it takes is one simple post about how hard something is for an entire group of Sanctimommies to pop up and make you feel like your centimeters tall, it’s hard to reach out and say you need help. I know. We get it.

When I go to moms’ groups I find women who never thought much of “support groups,” but suddenly realized they needed them when that screaming baby came along.

If you are struggling with breastfeeding, I want to say I’m sorry. I have experienced many of those struggles too, and I guarantee that millions of other women have suffered or struggled with you. You are not in this ship alone. There are many with and many who have gone before and who will come after. And, more, if you’ve ever been shamed because you are having (or had) a hard time nursing your little one, you’re not alone in that either, and I am sorry for your hurt heart too.

Why is breastfeeding so hard?

I can’t say I really know. But it often is and knowing you are not alone is one of the best helps on that crazy journey. Remember that. You’re not alone and there are lots of resources that you can turn to for help. We’re with you, Mama.


13 thoughts on “Why is Breastfeeding So Very HARD for So Many of Us?”

  1. As an American lactation educator and breastfeeding support group facilitator for foreign and national families in Cambodia, I appreciated your article. Regularly I interact with women and families who struggle and I like your idea that it might just be a little hard to get the dance going. We always like to say that everyone is coming to the table with two left feet and the breastfeeding dance is about getting down the choreography that is best for now (because it does change as baby gets older – breastfeeding olympics, anyone?) However, this is true for a lot of things in life, but the difference is that breastfeeding is biological and I see women feel personally defeated all the time because they personally feel their biology is broken when it does not all work right away or when they have made decisions without feeling like they were fully informed (different pain meds can have different effects on initial let down). Tears, cups of tea and hugs are almost essential when I do home visits, but I have also been there and once the dance is moving it is pretty amazing to see mums and babes moving to their own beat. Thanks for this.

  2. I think it’s also we are so hard on ourselves. I’ve talked to so many women. Some women are eembarrassed to tell others they are not breastfeeding, others are embarrassed to say they are still breastfeeding at 2 and older. If a mom chooses to give formula they feel selfish. We need to give ourselves a break! Being a mom is tough work, we are amazing people! Go us!!!

  3. Lots of people try and give up too soon. I don’t feel there is enough support to help. Midwifes are so stretched they don’t always have time to help after birth. There needs to be more support before so women can make an informed choice. I have a 2 year old whom I fed for a year. I loved every second, she latched within 5 minutes of being born we never looked back. The smell with my 9 week old. I get so much joy from feeding. Yes it’s very tiring. Yes I miss sleep, but don’t all new mums? It’s easier and cheaper than making up bottles. It may take longer but you get to cuddle your baby for all that time, everything else can wait. Time goes so fast its nice to stop and give my children the time and comfort they need.

  4. Breastfeeding was SO hard for me when I lacked the correct resources to work through the many many issues that my baby and I had. Sometimes a LC just doesn’t cut it. Breastfeeding was a little less hard (but still incredibly so) the second time around when I was now in a world of midwives and alternative medicine with people who help surround me with the help and resources we needed to succeed (cranial sacral therapist, pediatric dentist, massage therapists, chiropractors). Breastfeeding was hard, but manageable and success in weeks (rather then months, or not at all), the third time around when I had the confidence that we could work through all the genetic and physical issues PLUS the fact that I was surrounded by women who had the knowledge to help both the baby and I work through our issues. It was also a game changer that I had become a great wealth of resource and knowledge as a result of the last two painful trials. I think all in all it’s about being equipped and surrounding yourself with women who have the experience and knowledge to help you – – even if that means helping you find MORE people to help work through issues if they are lacking the answers.

  5. I didn’t see the issue of male circumcision affecting breastfeeding. It does disrupt that bond in many cases. It might be a good idea to address that issue as it makes breastfeeding more challenging.

  6. I loved the article. I have tried breastfeeding my premature baby when he was born back in October and he ended up in care for quite a while. we had all sorts of issues 1. I couldn’t have time with him straight after birth, 2. I couldn’t get him to latch properly at first and then we managed to get him to but then next feed he would struggle, 3. yes we had support from midwives and lactation consultants, one I couldn’t fault but the hospital one I got annoyed with, with her constant pestering on my back 24/7 about power pumping as she liked to call it even when i was trying to help my son feed and it stressed me out (and going through special care didn’t help either) ,4. he had four weeks of breast milk and in the end I couldn’t keep up with the hospital demand and plus they were funny with me trying feeding on demand. so I ended up with low supply issues so I felt bad having to go over to formula as i was adamant about not going over to formula but i tried everything i could to keep up. it’s a mixture of things that can’t help and no matter how much support you can get, it can sometimes be too much to the point of stressful. I have also found that most may choose to use formula out of freedom for mums because I have found that breastfeeding has been made into something even harder because of women who would like to go back to work and issues around expressing and breastfeeding in public. boobs came before formula and no matter what you choose or how to feed your baby all that matters is the baby is fed, happy and healthy. so good job to women breastfeeding or formula feeding it still means we can still do a good job no matter what. plus life throws us challenges we have to find way through.

  7. I’m having so much trouble with it and wish I knew why it’s so hard for so many women, it doesn’t seem right that breastfeeding is such a finicky thing! I feel like I’m trying a hundred things, and the contradicting advice from pediatrician and lactation consultants and other moms is maddening. I wanted to exclusively breastfeed. Currently with my 5 month old, first child, I am breastfeeding, formula feeding, pumped breastmilk bottle feeding, and solid feeding. He’s underweight, like off the WHO chart zero percentile. He doesn’t really look or act underweight though, he’s very active, alert, happy baby, reaching all his milestones early, but the pediatrician scares the crap out of me with the weight issue, and pushed formula on me very hard, even though I resisted and told her what I’d learned from LLL and kellymom site. I just want him to grow healthy and if Breastfeeding isn’t cutting it then I won’t deny him, there is a line when simply “fed is best”. If he was at least in the 5-10 percentile I probably would still exclusively Breastfeed against pedi advice since he’s doing so well otherwise. I’ve been trying so hard!! First my milk didn’t come in til the 5th day. I started pumping every 2 hours starting 18 hours after he was born, by my insistence, the hospital staff didn’t think I needed to yet. The hospital nurse gave him formula 24 hours after birth, broke my heart, because he was crying and she said he’s starving. I did have the first hour after birth with him but he didn’t latch. Then I mistakenly thought giving him a pacifier would teach him how to latch. It did, but then it was so strong and he’d clamp so hard it turned my nipples white, hurt me so bad I could only bare to have him latch for like a minute before I’d be in tears. If no one had told me the pain would go away in a couple weeks I would have quit. Once my milk came in I faded the formula out quickly and for the first 3 months I had no supply problems and froze extra, and at first baby was gaining so well the pediatrician said he was her Champion of the week and that we could relax on the feeding frequency a bit, but apparently that was a huge mistake because then at his 1 month appt he ended up losing weight, and pedi horrified me, made me cry, said my baby was starving and my milk must not be fatty enough and all this crap that contradicted everything else I learned, they pushed formula so I did it, with a very heavy heart, and I started eating a lot more avocados and walnuts and just packed on calories and went back to feeding him every hour and a half like I was before, which I think was the main problem, not the fat level of my milk. He gained within 2 days so I stopped the formula and kept up the frequency. Then at 6 weeks he got sick with RSV and his reaction was to nurse non-stop which picked up both his weight and my supply and after that things were going really well but still I was feeding him at least every hour and a half during the day and every 3 hours at night, which was what pedi recommended, but I also did on-demand style if he couldn’t wait for scheduled feed I would just feed him. Then my period came and there was some stressful things going on and my supply took a huge hit, which frustrated baby so he went on nursing strike right before his 4 month appt when they said he was off the chart in weight, then pedi scared me into at least topping him off with formula after every-other feeding. I told pedi that formula would just exasperate the nursing strike problem and that he has to nurse to get my supply back, a catch 22, and pedi said there’s a line when they’re too much underweight, that you have to supplement a low supply. So back to formula it was, and as expected I had to keep adding more formula as my supply dropped further. I started with 9oz formula per day (but in a month it’s gotten to 18 now). I got on fenugreek, mother’s milk tea, oatmeal, power pumping, also added more vitamins like calcium, magnesium, vit d, flaxseed oil, all on top of the postnatal multi vitamins, and made sure I was drinking 80-100oz water everyday. After two weeks I realized what could be part of the problem was that frequent daytime feeding meant he wasn’t napping. He’d go 10 hours without sleeping most days. I don’t know why pedi wouldn’t have caught this being that his feeding schedule was her idea. He was burning up all those calories not sleeping like that, especially how active he is. He is always waving his arms and kicking his legs like he’s hopped up on crack or something bahaha. So I started forcing naps, which I think made a huge difference. I started him on solids, baby cereal oatmeal, pureed avocado and squash, but really only to help him sleep, as pedi explained solids actually have less calories than breastmilk or formula, so it’s fed “in addition to”, not “in place of” a meal. I don’t wake him to feed anymore. I’m feeding him about 10 times a day, about 4oz each feed. It’s super hard to tell how much he gets when he nurses, but pumping and formula bottles give me a good guess what he’s eating. He’s starting to pudge up and feels heavier. I’m really hoping his 6 month appt proves he’s at least on the chart. But honestly my heart breaks 10 times a day because I feel like I can’t feed my son, like I’m so inadequate and if it weren’t for formula my baby would die of starvation because I’m not good enough, not woman enough, to feed him naturally. And I’m so tired. So very tired.

    1. I’m sorry you’ve been through so much.

      What was the rationale for the frequent pumping less than a day after giving birth?

  8. Great article! My baby is 7 months now and and there were many times I wanted to give up and was so frustrated but I am soooooo glad looking back that I had stuck through It! Breastfeeding is the hardest, most AMAZING and rewarding thing about being a new mommy. I love the bond I get to have with my baby. Hoping to keep it up until baby is 2 years old.

  9. There is also the issue of IGT(insufficient glandular tissue) a biological issue rarely, if ever discussed. Thankfully I had an informed LC, who was incredibly thorough. When non of my feeding, supply issues made sense, she investigated further. I’m one of the rare females who has no other issues such as PCOS or IT, yet I still never produced glandular tissue in pregnancy. There needs to be much more awareness and education around the myriad of reasons breastfeeding is hard and sometimes, sadly, impossible.

  10. I’m sorry to see so many mamas having a difficult time breast feeding. I’ve noticed this trend for over ten years.

    Except for the first month when it was extremely painful, I and virtually everyone I knew who breastfed had an easy time of it and produced ample milk. In fact we couldn’t imagine going to all the trouble of bottle feeding which was a great deal of work.
    What has changed then?

    For one thing, breast feeding has become mechanized. We’ve confused breast feeding with milk production and convinced women that if they’re attached to a machine and having their milk extracted that they’re still breast feeding. Without a warm, sweet smelling baby in your arms what stimulates the brain to activate milk production? Honestly I know that many women have been led to believe that breast feeding requires a pump, but women breastfed for thousands of years without one, and apparently had an easier time of it. Instead of demanding cold and sterile rooms to pump in at work perhaps we should be advocating for building a society in way that supports the mother/baby dyad and breast feeding is respected, encouraged and supported. Breast feeding not pumping.

    Second, breast feeding has been medicalized. Just a generation or so ago lactation consultants were for extreme cases. They weren’t lined up before birth as if lactation is something that requires a degree to accomplish. Women relied on one another. I had a hospital birth and did not have a professional consultant to teach me how to breast feed. In fact, an aid from the Caribbean who was sent in to clean the room up was the one who showed me how to get the baby to latch on. She gestured that she wanted to help and took my breast in her hand and showed me how to tip it just right so the baby would latch. This simple hands-on lesson was far more effective than any book or long-winded explanation would have been. I was lucky.

    Third, we’ve come to believe that father’s should participate “equally” in child rearing and interpreted this to mean that papa must be allowed to feed the baby in order to bond properly. This puts pressure on some new moms to share a role that is already well defined by nature. Even if she doesn’t have to go back to work immediately she may be pressure to pump so papa can feed the baby. This kind of sharing works out for some, but for others it’s just another societal expectation that goes against our animal nature.

    We all need someone to tell us that yes, it hurts, sometimes severely, but the pain WILL almost certainly stop and most women usually get over it in about a month to six weeks. And that it is so worth it to get past the pain. I say this as a tender skinned redhead who did Lamaze breathing while I nursed during the first month. I nursed, pretty much pain free for three years after that. I might have given up too without the great LLL mom who told me every day for a week or more that the pain would stop even though it seemed like it never would.

    We all need someone to tell us that there will be days when the baby nurses and fusses nearly nonstop for a day or two and that it may drive us out of our mind, but don’t despair. For most of us this is just a growth spurt and our milk supply increases as a result. We need that someone to tell us not to give up or think we’re “not able to make enough milk.”

    I understand that there are mamas – very good and loving mamas – who have very real problems and I don’t want to be insensitive to the pain that comes with this. My heart very genuinely goes out to them. But something seems to have changed radically in just a generation or two, and more an more women are having problems breast feeding. It’s time to explore the reasons why.

  11. Years ago I rarely heard about women who couldn’t make enough milk, but it seems to be a commonplace event now. I’m so sorry to see so many mamas having a difficult time breast feeding. I’ve noticed this trend for well over ten years.

    Except for the first month when it was extremely painful, I and virtually everyone I knew who breastfed had an easy time of it and produced ample milk. In fact we couldn’t imagine going to all the trouble of bottle feeding which was a great deal of work.

    What has changed?

    For one thing, breast feeding has become mechanized. We may have confused breast feeding with milk production and convinced women that if they’re attached to a machine and having their milk extracted that they’re still breast feeding. Without a warm, sweet smelling baby in your arms what stimulates the brain to activate and maintain milk production? I know that many new mothers have been led to believe that breast feeding requires a pump, but women breastfed for thousands of years without one, and apparently had an easier time of it. Instead of demanding cold and sterile rooms to pump in at work perhaps we should be advocating for building a society in ways that supports the mother/baby dyad and breast feeding is respected, encouraged and supported. Breast feeding not pumping.

    Second, breast feeding has been medicalized. Just a generation or so ago lactation consultants were for extreme cases. They weren’t lined up before birth as if lactation is something that requires a degree to accomplish. Women relied on one another. I had a hospital birth and did not have a professional consultant to teach me how to breast feed. In fact, an aid from the Caribbean who was sent in to clean the room up was the one who showed me how to get the baby to latch on. She gestured that she wanted to help and took my breast in her hand and showed me how to tip it just right so the baby would latch. This simple hands-on lesson was far more effective than any book or long-winded explanation would have been. Even at the time I could see that inhibitions against touching another woman’s breast was inhibiting the nurses from effectively showing the new moms how to feed their babies. I was the lucky one – my helper was hands on.

    Third, we’ve come to believe that fathers should participate “equally” in child rearing, which is a good thing, but we’ve interpreted this to mean that papa must be allowed to feed the baby in order to bond properly. This puts pressure on some new moms to share a role that is already well defined by nature. Even if she doesn’t have to go back to work immediately she may be pressured to pump so papa can feed the baby. This kind of sharing works out for some, but for others it’s just another societal expectation that goes against our animal nature.

    We all need someone to tell us that yes, it hurts, sometimes severely, but the pain WILL almost certainly stop and most women usually gradually get over it in about a month to six weeks. And that it is so worth it to get past the pain. I say this as a tender skinned redhead who did Lamaze breathing while I nursed during the first month and a half. I nursed, pretty much pain free for three years after that. I might have given up too without the great LLL mom who told me every day for a week or more that the pain would stop even though it seemed like it never would.

    We all need someone to tell us that there will be days when the baby nurses and fusses nearly nonstop for a day or two and that it may drive us out of our mind, but don’t despair. For most of us this is just a growth spurt and our milk supply increases as a result. We need that someone to tell us not to give up or think we’re “not able to make enough milk.”

    I understand that there are mamas – very good and loving mamas – who have very real problems and I don’t want to be insensitive to the pain that comes with this. My heart very genuinely goes out to them. But something seems to have changed radically in just a generation or two, and more and more women are having problems breast feeding. It’s time to explore the reasons why.

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