How to Get Over Your First Breastfeeding Hurdles

The first few weeks of breastfeeding can be the toughest.


I recently saw an article on the basics of breastfeeding. It was titled "Breastfeeding Bliss." I nearly laughed out loud. Bliss isn't what comes to mind when I think about my own early efforts to nurse.

When I was pregnant, I studied for motherhood as if I was preparing for the bar exam. I read everything I could find on nursing, talked with other moms and even took a breastfeeding class. I was ready. But when my baby arrived, nourishing him was not what I'd expected.

I was unprepared for the physical and emotional rigors of first-time breastfeeding, even though I was completely committed to it. Since then, I have spoken with many mothers whose breastfeeding woes early on ranged from painful breast infections and sore nipples to feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. Many parenting magazines and books do not reflect these challenges and instead paint a rosy picture that sets many women up for failure. In fact, more than 60 percent of American women are breastfeeding exclusively seven days after giving birth, but only 14 percent of those women are still doing so six months later, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Difficulties

The most common problem associated with breastfeeding is an improper latch, which can lead to cracked nipples and engorgement, says pediatrician William Sears, M.D., author of The Breastfeeding Book (Little Brown & Co., 2000). To achieve a proper latch, hold your baby close to you, tummy to tummy, and high enough that his mouth is lined up with your nipple. Tickle his lips with your nipple until his mouth opens wide. Then pull him close to you, directing your nipple into the center of his mouth; don't lean over toward him or stretch your breast out to him. Make sure he takes the entire nipple and at least 1 1/2 inches of your areola in his mouth.

But physical challenges are just one side of the coin. In fact, emotional ones often prove more powerful in a woman's decision to give up breastfeeding. "Many new moms don't have a realistic idea of how intense breastfeeding is during the first few weeks," says Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., I.B.C.L.C., a health psychologist, lactation consultant and research associate professor at the Family Research Lab at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

I was surprised to find that for the first eight weeks, my son wanted to stay attached to me 24 hours a day, leaving me fatigued and worried about my milk supply. Conversely, some moms find that their babies show no interest in feeding, and they suffer from a sense of failure or inadequacy.

Breastfeeding problems can seem even more formidable when you're alone. "Years ago, girls saw their mothers, sisters, aunts, friends and neighbors breastfeeding, but today it is not unusual for new moms never to have seen a woman breastfeed a baby," says Deborah Dowe, R.N., C.C.E., I.B.C.L.C., a lactation consultant and childbirth educator at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford, Conn.

Kendall-Tackett adds that many mothers are on their own within days of giving birth, with no assistance at all. Sometimes, this causes them to give up even when the breastfeeding challenge they are facing could easily be solved if they had the proper support.

The Solutions

It's normal to feel overwhelmed by breastfeeding problems, especially when you're recovering physically from childbirth, adjusting to first-time parenthood and getting to know your baby. Here are some tips to make it easier.

If You're In Pain: The best solution is to seek advice from a lactation consultant, Kendall-Tackett says. "Pain from breastfeeding is not normal and is an indication that something--usually quite fixable--is wrong," she says. A lactation consultant might demonstrate how a simple adjustment to the baby's position can help prevent or relieve sore nipples, explain how chilled cabbage leaves can relieve engorgement or give tips on speeding recovery from a breast infection.

If You're Exhausted: "When moms are tired, they are more prone to breastfeeding difficulties," Kendall-Tackett says. So in addition to following the tried-and-true advice to sleep whenever the baby sleeps, learn how to breastfeed while lying down so you can get the rest so critical for establishing your milk supply (see "The Holds" below for tips on this and other breastfeeding positions). Also consider sleeping within easy reach of the baby; many moms say that getting up to fetch the baby and then returning him to his crib adds to their fatigue. Finally, line up someone to help with meals, errands and household chores for the first few weeks, if possible. Your mother, in-laws and spouse are great in this role, but you also might want to hire a doula.

If You're Overwhelmed Or Frustrated: For women who are accustomed to following a schedule, a baby's inconsistent nursing patterns require a major readjustment of expectations. But the payoff is well worth the effort, according to pediatrician Sears. "Breastfed babies do not schedule easily and they wake more often at night, but remember that the more you put in, the more you get out," he says. "Breastfeeding is a lifestyle choice."

Today, I'm happy to report that all my breastfeeding bugs have been worked out, and I thoroughly enjoy the tranquil, special moments I spend with my son. I wouldn't trade my decision to breastfeed for anything in the world, and I'm happy that I stuck with it.

As you and your baby learn how to breastfeed, know that it will get easier. Your experience and confidence will grow, and in just a few short weeks, you'll be a seasoned pro.