Will Breastfeeding Hurt?

Many new mothers are afraid of breastfeeding before the baby comes (and the rest of them just have no idea at all what breastfeeding entails). While most of us women have had breasts since puberty, those breasts have never been called to actually do anything except fill out a shirt or make a statement. Soon-to-be moms wonder if they’ll be able to breastfeed. What will it feel like? They might also worry that breastfeeding will hurt.

Hate to break it to you but…

Breastfeeding can be uncomfortable. In fact, in the first few weeks of breastfeeding, it can be downright painful. This is primarily a function of you, your breasts, and your baby getting in sync. After delivery, your breasts go through a lot. They start producing milk, they swell, and they aren’t used to being nursed. There is a breaking in period. Baby has to learn how to get a good latch. You have to learn what a good latch is. Your skin has to get used to it.

And this period can be painful.

However, after a few weeks, this pain should pass. In general, while there is often a feeling of tugging and pressure when breastfeeding, it really shouldn’t be painful at all.

The level of pain or discomfort you experience matters

When I say that some pain is possible when first starting out, I don’t mean that the pain should be excruciating. For me, the most painful moments of breastfeeding in the first few weeks after birth was at latching. My nipples felt rubbed raw, like the skin there had been dragged over sandpaper. Offering up that bruised and battered skin to the hungry mouth of my baby multiple times a day took some courage. I knew there would be a brief moment of pain as baby got started, but once latched, I was okay. Over time, this pain was reduced until there was no discomfort at all.

Now, the pain level matters. It really does. Extreme pain at any time is a sign that something is wrong. The most common reason that women experience extreme pain when breastfeeding is because the baby has problems latching. If the baby doesn’t latch correctly, then they may chew or suck on the skin of the nipple without drawing out the milk.

Another common reason why some women may experience pain when breastfeeding is because of thrush. Thrush occurs when there is an overgrowth of yeast and can affect both the baby and the mother. This results in a stabbing or sharp pain that may require treatment by a doctor to resolve (mother’s nipples and baby’s mouth).

Infections are also a common cause of pain, such as mastitis. Mastitis can result from infrequent nursing sessions, plugged ducts, frequent engorgement, or frankly, nothing in particular at all. If you have breast pain and a fever, (or read streaks on your breast), call your doctor asap.

Keep nursing (even if it is painful) unless your doctor tells you to stop. Unfortunately, most breastfeeding pains are solved by MORE breastfeeding.

Don’t be afraid to seek help

Any time you experience pain with breastfeeding, you should feel free to seek professional help. Your OB and your pediatrician should have access to tons of resources to get you through difficult times.

You shouldn’t have to worry about dealing with pain at any time during the breastfeeding process, no matter how new you are to breastfeeding or how eager your child is, as this will make the experience frustrating for you.

People might not want to tell you this, but breastfeeding can be really hard. It just can. Most people want to tell you how wonderful it is, and how important it is. But they fail to tell you that it can be really HARD. Breastfeeding successfully may require that you seek help. It should be all natural and baby should just do it, right? In most cases, that’s not how it works. You have to work for it, and work through it. Getting help doesn’t make you any less of a mom, and it doesn’t make you a failure.

And finally, if you try to nurse your baby and it doesn’t work out, don’t take it to heart. Not everyone can breastfeed. You can still be an awesome mom and babies thrive on formula (THANK YOU technology!)

Does pain mean that you shouldn’t breastfeed? Or try to breastfeed?

Not at all! Please please please don’t let anything in this article persuade you that you shouldn’t try to breastfeed. Nursing a baby has been and will continue to be one of the most wondrous things that I have ever done in my life! Being able to feed a child with nothing by the milk produced by my body….well, let’s just say that it seems like a down-right miracle, considering that otherwise, I can barely remember to get the trash can to the curb on time and on the right day of the week for the garbage man.

I felt that it was important to be fully transparent in this article about my breastfeeding experience, because I feel like many articles (and even doctors) just tell you not to worry about it. You don’t have to WORRY while you wait for the baby to arrive–you can get READY for the baby to arrive. If you knew that breastfeeding was going to be hard, you’d start getting informed. You’d reach out to experts to learn what you can before baby arrives and be close enough to them that you can lean on them after the birth. Why are so many women in the dark about nursing? We need to work together to change this, and it starts right here, and now.

For more info about breastfeeding, check out our Breastfeeding FAQs post: 100 Breastfeeding Tips For New Moms.

I also recommend a book called the Nursing Mother’s Companion as a good pre-baby resource. It has a lot of high quality information and some really matter-of-fact diagrams and instructions about how to get started breastfeeding successfully. I consulted it frequently when my first son was born.