Breastfeeding Problems: A Survival Story

Don’t let late-night feedings, sore nipples and a lack of a good latch turn you off breastfeeding too quickly. Here’s how to keep going even when the going gets tough.

My sister-in-law, who nursed all six of her children, never told anyone to give up on breastfeeding … until I came along. Even with all her coaching and encouragement, I was so emotional and stressed that she said, “You know, thousands of babies thrive on formula. It’s OK to give up feeding breast milk if you have to.” I soldiered on. Nearly two months passed before baby and I truly got the hang of it, after which I successfully, comfortably and happily nursed him for 16 months. Two years later, I went on to nurse my daughter and am still breastfeeding her and loving it.

A few of us new moms persevere through breastfeeding challenges, but most throw in the burp rag (and the breast pump) much earlier than experts recommend. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2017 Breastfeeding Report Card says 84 percent of moms start breastfeeding, but 58 percent are still nursing at six months. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests breastfeeding for at least the first year, but only 35 percent of moms continue breastfeeding through 12 months. The CDC came to this conclusion: “High breastfeeding initiation rates show that most mothers in the U.S. want to breastfeed and are trying to do so. However, even from the very start, mothers may not be getting the breastfeeding support they need.”

Having done it twice now, I think they’re right. Successful breastfeeding takes two things: support and stubbornness.

The Urge to Quit Nursing

My first baby was a big boy—9 pounds, 6 ounces, delivered vaginally—and my postpartum recovery was slow and difficult. The strain of parenting, the sleep deprivation and the pain were all topped off by serious problems nursing. I was certain he wasn’t getting enough milk and nourishment. My letdown was so fast that the milk flow would cause him to choke and gag. He also had terrible reflux, which meant he would ultimately spit up the majority of the milk I worked so hard to get into him.

These struggles, coupled with a major case of baby blues, kept me on the verge of quitting. I began to dread frequent feedings—especially at night, when everything seemed harder. It was nothing like the sweet picture I had in my mind of mother and her little one enjoying those special moments at the breast.

Choosing to Seek Help from a Lactation Consultant

Sheila Peters, RN, BSN, IBCLC at Mercy Hospital Springfield in Springfield, Missouri, was a true sanity-saver for my husband and me. From the start, I could sense her confidence, and after only a few minutes of listening, I could tell that she had a vast amount of knowledge and skill, including 25 years of experience assisting countless mothers in learning to nurse through common breastfeeding problems like plugged ducts, and real doozies, like low milk supply, breast infection (mastitis) and the oral yeast infection called thrush that affects baby’s mouth.

As much as Peters eventually helped us, I initially left her office with feelings of frustration and defeat. Her approach was to offer her clients printouts with notes on problems and solutions. The terms on my printout? A faulty baby latch. Faulty positioning. Severe breast engorgement. Overactive letdown. Loss of suckle. I felt like I was failing my son in the most fundamental part of mothering: nourishing him.

But I was absolutely determined to breastfeed. I knew it was the best way to go for us and the perfect way to bond with my baby. I thought I knew what I was in for. I’d scoured magazines and books, taken two breastfeeding classes and pestered fellow new mothers for information. But I was not prepared for how unbelievably stressful and difficult it would be.

That’s where Peters says she comes in—providing instruction on the hard parts. “I teach them, ‘This is how to latch, this is how to hold your breast.’ They need that, and that’s missing if their moms didn’t breastfeed and pass that knowledge down,” she says. Many women—even those from a tradition of breastfeeding—have never actually watched it being done, she adds.

Peters says the most vital factors for successful breastfeeding are support, knowledge and hands-on instruction. “Moms know it’s the best for baby’s needs. They’re educated, they read up on it. But that skill—how to do it—doesn’t always come naturally,” she says.

She likes to teach moms how to latch and position before the baby arrives. She has dolls and a wearable breast model (which she has patented) to use during the prenatal lessons. And after delivery, she’ll get down to the skin (literally) to show moms how to pick up the breast and aim the nipple, among other things.

Consultants like Peters can help breastfeeding mothers through major barriers. Peters taught my husband and I how to “train” our son to suckle instead of chomp, which is what he resorted to when bad latches reduced milk production. We’d wash our hands and let him suck at our fingertips. When he got it right, pulling strongly at our fingers, we squirted milk into the corner of his mouth with a tiny syringe. It takes a dose of determination to persist under those conditions, and it’s certainly not something we would have known to do without the help of her as our health care provider.

I came close to switching to formula many times, but my husband urged me to keep trying. He sat with me through each feeding—day and night—for the first two weeks. Since he had been there for the sessions with Peters, he could help with positioning our heavy son or bringing him in for the latch. His support was invaluable.

Breaking Through the Barriers of Nursing

Peters had me pump daily because I was severely engorged. I needed the relief beyond hand expression and my baby could barely stretch his mouth around me. Anyone who’s been through engorgement knows the discomfort and inconvenience of having breasts three times their normal size, as heavy as bricks and so full of milk that just toweling off after a shower can cause them to spray across the room. And then there’s the nipple pain, the lanolin applications, the ice packs, the warm showers and warm compresses, the leaking … but take heart: Your milk supply will eventually level out. My breasts returned to a more human size, the discomfort waned, my nipples toughened and I stopped having to change shirts several times a day.

The emotional aspect of breastfeeding surprised me. I cried every single day for weeks. I dripped tears on my son countless times. At the worst moments, I wanted to give him back. But every time I turned my pump on, the motor seemed to chant, “We’re OK, we’re OK, we’re OK.” I certainly needed that mantra.

The Payoff of Sticking With it

By now you’re probably thinking: This sob story is supposed to make me want to breastfeed? I hope so. I figure: If I can stick it out, just about anyone can. The real message of this story is to ask for help and hang in there. It will get better.

You might not feel inclined to bare your breasts to some strange lady in scrubs, but chances are, she will help you. A fellow mother who’s nursed successfully can also show you how it’s done. At the very least, call an expert and get some advice. As personal and intimate as it is, breastfeeding is not something you want to struggle with alone.

It takes a week for a mother’s milk even to come in, and that first week can be enough to make you want to give up. It’s at least another couple of weeks for your milk supply to level off. And a few more to get the hang of things. But breastfeeding does become natural. It does feel snuggly and pleasant.

It does start looking like that sweet picture of mother and baby nestled together. I’ll never forget the first time my son smiled at me while nursing. He had loosened his hold on my breast, and I glanced down to see him grinning his toothless grin, while his eyes crinkled up and milk dribbled down his chin. That’s when I knew it was worth it. Totally and completely worth it.

If you’re having difficulty breastfeeding, or just want to have some helpful facts at your fingertips, click to these information-packed sites for additional assistance:

American Academy of Pediatrics

The Bump

Food and Nutrition Services, USDA

La Leche League International

National Women’s Health Information Center

Nursing Mothers Council

United States Breastfeeding Committee

By Vanessa Everett Howard

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