The answer to the question ‘Is breastfeeding hard?’ is not a simple yes or no. It’s a complex issue that affects a person physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially.
One of those aspects may be easy while others are difficult. And each woman’s experience will be different and constantly in flux.
Breastfeeding advocates often push that breastfeeding is easy. A common chart you see represents the level of effort of breastfeeding vs. formula bottle feeding over time.
I made this chart myself. For copyright purposes, I can’t get a chart with real data. But this is what those charts look like. At first, breastfeeding is way more difficult. With time, it gets easier. Bottle feeding, on the other hand, never gets harder but also never gets easier.
The point is to show that breastfeeding is easier. And for the mechanics, I do think this is true. But breastfeeding is about more than mechanics. It has physical, mental, and emotional sides to it as well.
More Accurate Representation
Life is diverse. A breastfeeding relationship is not as simple as ‘once it’s easy, it’s always easy.’
Here’s another chart to show how breastfeeding relationships may go. To make things simpler, all the women in the chart solely breastfeed. They don’t even pump to bottle feed.
Let’s break down what’s going on with these three different women.
The first few days of breastfeeding are tough. But once she gets the hang of it, it becomes a lot easier. For the next couple of weeks, Baby is feeding great.
On week 4 she gets the flu. She’s sick in bed when a family member can come help out. Otherwise, she’s up taking care of the baby. Even with someone there, she still has to wake up several times throughout the day to feed the baby.
Thankfully, Baby doesn’t get sick. She feels all better the following week but it takes time to get back into a breastfeeding rhythm with her baby. Once she does, her great breastfeeding relationship resumes.
Mom 2 is breastfeeding with her third child. Just like with her first 2, it takes a few days to figure out. But even after a few days, she’s getting fresh nipple trauma and seeks out the help of a lactation consultant.
After a couple of weeks of working with the lactation consultant, her breastfeeding relationship with her baby is figured out and she’s enjoying it.
On week 5 her partner goes back to work. Their family leave has ended and she’s home alone with the baby and a 2 and 3 year old. Breastfeeding becomes much more difficult.
The two older kids are constantly hanging off of her and her baby is constantly at the breast because he’s going through a growth spurt. She feels like her body doesn’t belong to her.
She also feels like she’s failing her three kids. Her frustration with breastfeeding makes her feel guilty. That’s what she’s supposed to do to provide the best nutrients for her baby. And she successfully breastfed the older two.
For the older kids, she feels like she isn’t giving them enough attention because the baby is constantly needing to feed thanks to his growth spurt.
Her struggles with breastfeeding continue.
Mom 3 gets breastfeeding figured out during the second week. She needed a little extra time with a lactation consultant and then was good.
Breastfeeding is going great and she’s healing from labor well. During week 4 she decides to leave the house for the first time. She goes to the mall to walk around and just be out of the house.
She finds somewhere to sit and be comfortable and breastfeeds uncovered. As people walk by her, she sees the side ways glances and hears some people mutter under their breaths about how disgusting it is and that she should be doing that sort of thing in the bathroom.
Mom 3 quickly becomes upset and leaves. For the rest of the week she wonders if there is something wrong with her breastfeeding that would cause people to react so negatively. Isn’t breastfeeding supposed to be beautiful and fulfilling?
The next week she’s recovered from the experience but decides to stay home. The following week she goes out again, this time with a friend. She publicly breastfeeds uncovered as before. But this time, she’s having so much fun chatting and hanging out with her friend that she doesn’t notice people’s reactions to her, or if there even were any. But she does hesitate to breastfeed publicly because of her previous experience.
What These Stories Say
The point of telling these different stories is to demonstrate that breastfeeding is about more than getting a good latch and feeding the baby enough. Factors such as physical, mental, emotional, and social all have an effect on it.
I kept it simple by having them all be stay at home moms. But going back to work throws in new challenges. Then you have to pump which is time consuming and can be difficult.
All of these women were also able to figure out breastfeeding eventually. It’s even harder when a new mom doesn’t figure out breastfeeding and continually has fresh nipple trauma.
I intentionally did not put in the stories whether or not the moms switched to formula. Two moms can face the same situation but make different decisions. The stories were to point out the challenges and what may cause breastfeeding to be more harmful than helpful.
Overall, I’ve had a great breastfeeding relationship with my baby, Sara. But around 8 months I was seriously thinking about switching to formula. I bought the formula and tried to give it to her. She didn’t like it and completely refused to drink it.
What made me want to switch? I was struggling with depression and breastfeeding was making it worse. That sounds counter-intuitive. Breastfeeding is supposed to cut depression rates.
I think those studies apply more to moms whose lives are going like they normally do. When there is a disruption in daily livelihood, it’s probably a toss up in whether or not breastfeeding helps. As far as I know, no one has studied the difference between normalcy and disruption with breastfeeding. So that’s only my guess.
My disruption was my husband was gone for a month. It was just Sara and I. I got up several times a night to feed her and got up early with her.
That month was the longest that my husband had been gone since right after Sara was born. Then, he was gone for 6 weeks but my brother came to stay with me during that time to help out.
I felt very alone and like a boob slave. It seemed like my body didn’t belong to me and was only for catering to the needs of my child. That’s what led me to write a piece about Being a Woman after Pregnancy when my husband returned.
The separation stressed me out and dealing with everything at home was stressing me out too. Breastfeeding was adding to the problem for me. I still would have been stressed even if I was formula feeding, but at least I would of had a sense of body autonomy. That much would have helped.
When my husband did return, he took two weeks of leave. He was around to help with Sara and the house. Most of the stress I was feeling was lifted, and I returned to a state of enjoying breastfeeding.
My husband left again not too long after that leave period. But I was in a better place and didn’t develop depression during his absence.
Breastfeeding stayed a good relationship.
Not So Simple
Breastfeeding can be easy and hard at the same time. This post isn’t meant to scare anyone away from breastfeeding. But to acknowledge its challenges. We do moms a disservice by acting like breastfeeding is natural and therefore easy.
I encourage anyone who wants to breastfeed to do so. It is rewarding. If you find your struggling with breastfeeding, be sure to get help. Feeding your baby shouldn’t hurt.
At the same time, not everyone can continue the relationship for one reason or another. For those who have made the switch to formula, or think they’re going to have to, I wrote about Not Feeling Guilty When Stopping Breastfeeding.
Support, or lack of, from friends and family can go a long way in determining whether or not a new mom continues to breastfeed. If you know someone breastfeeding, be sure to be there for them no matter what turn their path takes.
I’d love to hear about the challenges you’ve faced in your breastfeeding relationship(s). And whether or not you made the switch to formula or stayed with breastfeeding.
If your baby isn’t born yet, I’d love to hear what your fears about breastfeeding are.