“Breastfeeding is the most unnatural natural thing ever,” a friend told me a few weeks after we’d both given birth. Forget hitting the nail on the head, she’d smashed it into the wall. Why had nobody ever mentioned this before?
While breastfeeding is incredibly natural, there’s nothing easy or straightforward about it. It’s a very complicated dance both you and your baby have to learn. Sometimes this can take days, sometimes weeks. Other times it just doesn’t work out. But I don’t think enough people talk about this.
Sometimes you can’t perform the dance, sometimes it’s your baby having difficulty. And there are dozens of possible reasons for this: reflux, tongue tie, hormone imbalance, inverted nipples, insufficient glandular tissue, poor mental health. The list goes on... and on... and on.
But anyone born with breasts is made to feel like biologically they should be able to breastfeed – and that just isn’t right.
So without further ado, here are some things you don’t tend to hear about breastfeeding before – and even after – having children. Because while there are so many positives to being able to feed your baby from your bosom, we need to get real about the difficulties too.
1. Breastfeeding is hard work
In TV and films you often see newborn babies popped on their mother’s breast after birth. They start sucking and that’s it, you think. It’s as easy as that! In reality, breastfeeding takes a lot of practice and hard work to get right. And even then, it’s not a given that it will work out.
In those first few weeks and months, a lot of work will go on behind the scenes to get your milk flowing and your baby latching properly – it isn’t some inbuilt thing they know how to do. A lot of the time you have to physically show them what to do so they fasten onto the breast properly. Otherwise you can end up with extremely sore nipples and even issues like mastitis (where your breast tissue becomes really red, inflamed and painful).
It’s a real learning curve which breastfeeding parents need to be supported through – something that doesn’t always happen if you’re rushed out of hospital after giving birth.
If you are struggling, you can contact organisations like La Leche League for free advice, or your hospital’s breastfeeding support team if you have any questions – no matter how big or small.
If you have a health visitor coming to see you in the first few weeks after birth, don’t be afraid to ask them to look at how your baby is latching or tell them if you think they’re not getting enough, or are getting too much, milk.
As your little one grows, breastfeeding does become less hard work. But we do need to acknowledge that it takes a lot out of you mentally and physically, especially in those first few weeks and months.
2. It can send you into a menopausal-like state
After giving birth, oestrogen levels in the body drop – and these levels continue to stay low in lactating individuals.
A study that compared women who breastfed with those who didn’t, three and six weeks after giving birth, found lactating women were “significantly more likely” to have vaginal dryness, which is also experienced during menopause.
Prolactin, a hormone which increases in order to produce breastmilk, can also prompt a decrease in libido.
If you’re finding that breastfeeding has made your vagina dry, but you still want to have penetrative sex, it’s worth using water-based lubricants so you don’t hurt yourself. And remember, it’s totally ok not to have sex of any kind in the days, weeks and months after birth too – you’ve got a lot going on!
3. Not everyone can breastfeed – and it doesn’t mean they’re a failure
Sometimes breastfeeding just doesn’t work out. You might’ve had a traumatic birth resulting in your supply drying up, you might not be producing enough, you might need to go back to work, you might be experiencing pain, you might be struggling with your mental health. Whatever it is, you can choose to stop.
Because the ‘breast is best’ mantra has been drummed into mothers over the years, there can be a lot of guilt hanging around making this decision – especially if generations of women before you have breastfed and you’re feeling the pressure to keep going.
But the reality is that there are so many reasons why a person might stop their breastfeeding journey and ultimately, it’s none of anyone else’s business what you decide to do.
What we do need is more support and encouragement for women who do choose to stop – or whose bodies take that choice away from them – so they are not made to feel any guilt and are instead able to focus fully on feeding their babies in what is the right way for them. Fed is always best.
4. It can limit your freedom as a parent
Breastfeeding can make equality quite hard to achieve in a relationship where one parent is doing all of the feeding. It’s ‘a thing’ at all times of the day, but especially at bedtime and during night feeds. You may feel unable to go out at bedtime because you need to feed your baby to sleep and be there to comfort them when they’re inconsolable and wake up. And if you do decide to go out-out and miss some feeds? Your boobs will literally drunk cry on your behalf.
While breastfeeding is absolutely beautiful, it can sometimes begin to feel like your wings are clipped. Obviously you can express milk if you want to go out and that’s great if your baby will take a bottle, but for lots of mothers it doesn’t always necessarily work out this way. And that can be a bit exhausting.
5. Your boobs literally make a tailor-made cocktail of amazingness for your baby
Ok so we’ve established breastfeeding is hard. But if and when it does click, it can be so beneficial for your baby – and we shouldn’t ignore that. From the nutrient-packed first milk (or colostrum) you produce, to the antibody-filled breast milk that you give to your baby thereafter, feel safe in the knowledge that your baby is getting all they need from you (and more).
Breastmilk contains living cells, hormones, active enzymes, antibodies and compounds with unique structures ideally suited to your baby, according to La Leche League. What’s more, if your baby is sick, your breastmilk will literally adapt to help fight off that illness. Your body can do that. Amazing.
6. Breastfeeding requires a lot less equipment
One thing you might totally be unaware of – especially if you’re having your first child – is that once you’ve kind of got the hang of it, breastfeeding is, a lot of the time, relatively faff-free.
Admittedly you have to find somewhere to plonk down (it’s legal to breastfeed in public places anywhere in the UK) and whip your boob out, but if your baby is kicking off you can do that fairly quickly without having to prepare much.
With formula feeding it can require a little more preparation – you need a lot more paraphernalia with you when you’re out and about, you need to be sterilising bottles all the time, and of course, it costs money to keep buying. You’re also at the mercy of supermarkets having your baby’s preferred brand of formula in stock.
7. Seeing your baby on your boob will give you an indescribable amount of feels
There’s something so incredibly heartwarming about seeing your baby looking up at you while you feed them and their little starfish hands grab on to you like their life depends on it. Honestly, it’s really hard to describe just how amazing it is.
Those first moments when they suckle after birth – their warm skin pressed against yours – is an experience that many mothers will treasure, whether they continue to breastfeed or not.
Ultimately though, the biggest gift of all is seeing your child grow up to be happy and strong – regardless of how you’ve been feeding them.