Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, we will receive an affiliate commission. This helps us keep the lights on, and costs you nothing extra. Please see full disclosure policy HERE.
It's Time We're Honest: Nursing Will Hurt in the Beginning, and That's OK.
By Kasey Erin Phifer-Byrne
Here are the scenarios, and maybe they sound familiar:
- Baby is 5 days old, and your nipples are cracked and bleeding. It's 2am, and you can't cope. You start Googling. You blame yourself: is it flat nipples? A tongue tie? Are you just not "doing it" right?
- Your pediatrician tells you at the 2-day checkup, "If it hurts, you're doing something wrong." You walk out defeated, with formula samples in hand.
- You're 8 months pregnant and your friend/sister/neighbor says, "Breastfeeding was just too painful for me. Make sure you have some formula ready just in case."
Now, right off the bat I want to say every mom needs to know it is perfectly okay to feed her baby in whatever way she chooses, for whatever reasons feel right to her. We're not about mommy wars here.
But if you've chosen to breastfeed, there's something you should know: it will probably hurt at first. And that's OK.
There are certainly problems and pains that aren't normal in breastfeeding, and I address those in another post. But even if your baby doesn't have a tongue tie, your nipples are perfectly shaped, and you have the support of a loving partner and a lactation consultant, it can still hurt. There are lots of reasons for this, and I want you to know that it will get better. And in the meantime, there are things you can do to ease the pain and get your nipples used to being sucked on for several hours a day. Because *most* of us aren't used to that, right?
Let's start by talking about why breastfeeding tends to be painful in the beginning.
If you've read up on breastfeeding, you know that "latch" refers to the way the baby takes your nipple into his or her mouth. Babies should latch on with a wide-open mouth and flanged top and bottom lips, and should be taking a decent amount of your areola in—not just the nipple itself. Your nipple should be reaching the back of baby's mouth, where the soft palate begins. It can take time for your baby to learn how to latch properly and deeply enough, and for you to learn the best tricks for offering your breast in a way that makes it easy for baby to latch well. You're likely to experience pain at first before you've both figured out how to get it right.
A few days after giving birth, you'll notice your milk "coming in." And when it does, you'll likely experience engorgement, as well. Engorgement hurts! At first, your body won't be sure how much milk to make for your baby, and this leads to rock-hard, swollen breasts that feel way too full. It might even be tricky for your baby to latch well on an engorged breast, which will cause nipple pain, and you'll probably need to step in remove some of the milk yourself to get relief. It's best not to try pumping full-force, because this sends your body the message that all that milk is needed, and it'll keep producing at a high rate. Instead, try gently massaging to hand-express some milk into a towel, or if you'd like to save that liquid gold, a cup or bottle. Within a few days, the engorgement will calm down, and within about 6 weeks, your body will regulate your milk supply to meet the needs of your baby (or babies!).
It's also easy to develop rashes or contact dermatitis on your breasts or nipples if you're still learning how to care for milk-making breasts. Let the girls air out for a few minutes between feedings, if possible! Moisture from breast pads is the perfect environment for yeast and bacteria to hang out and reproduce, and we don't want any of that. It's also possible to experience reactions to any nipple creams you might be using—my personal favorite recommendation is to start by trying coconut oil for run-of-the-mill nipple pain and soreness. It's natural, simple, and anti-microbial, and safe for baby if there's any left on your nipple by the next feeding. Many moms I've worked with also like Earth Mama Angel Baby Nipple Butter. Of course, there are dozens of nipple creams on the market, and if you need to use one to relieve some temporary pain, it may take a few tries to find one that works well for you.
Okay, so it hurts, but how do you cope?
First of all, when in doubt, talk to an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. (See list below). An IBCLC will be able to help you work through any "normal" pain with tips and tricks, but they'll also be able to help catch any other issues, like a tongue tie or a breast infection.
You can also look for local support groups, or your local chapter of La Leche League, a worldwide and well-established mother-to-mother support organization that provides encouragement, guidance, and education to breastfeeding families.
Having the support of other been-there-done-that breastfeeding moms can mean the world when you're new to breastfeeding, tired, and still adjusting to having that sweet babe on the outside of your body. Experiencing pain doesn't mean you're failing, or that you aren't able to or won't be able to breastfeed your baby. And while latch issues are usually on baby's end, pain also doesn't mean that your baby won't work out the kinks with a little help from you. In the meantime, having support can help you work through the learning curve.
Learn about local resources here.
Kasey Phifer-Byrne is an English professor, poetry-writer, lactation consultant in training, and mom to one cat and one soon-to-be-born human. She teaches from home while balancing clinical hours for lactation support, preparing for new parenthood, and enjoying a good hike near her home outside of Philadelphia. Kasey is passionate about supporting breastfeeding mamas and advocating for family leave and work-life balance despite today's challenges to working parents.