Breastfeeding: I’m Doing it Right and it Still Hurts!

I’m always annoyed when I see statements like this in breastfeeding books and websites: “If nursing hurts, then something is wrong.”

It bothers me because it’s just not true. I’ve nursed six of my seven babies and I am here to testify that breastfeeding can indeed hurt or be uncomfortable even when you and baby are doing everything by the book. What concerns me most is that mothers are usually told “something is wrong” when they experience pain, and they become frustrated and may even give up when all the typical solutions don’t work. 

Thinking about his next meal...

Thinking about his next meal…

In most books, an index search on nipple soreness or pain turns up references to bad latch, poor positioning or infections. What if you’ve ruled those out and are still having pain? Consider these three possible causes:

Are you a newbie? There’s a toughening up phase in the beginning that I have to endure with every single baby. Ask many veterans mothers and they’ll report that despite a good latch and positioning, the first weeks can range from uncomfortable to downright painful. Patience and comfort measures are in order. I’ve got all kinds of tricks for relief in the beginning. Numb the nipple with an ice cube before letting that hungry newborn latch on. Take a deep breath in and hold it during those painful first sucks; release your breathe slowly as the nipple softens and letdown begins. Try alternating ibuprofen and acetaminophen during the hardest times. Resort to a breast pump when you cannot put baby on without tears. Some mothers find that pure lanolin or a balm like Earth Mama Angel Baby helps, but everyone is different. Personally, I’m surprised that no one has invented a topical “nipple numbing” cream by now that could be safely ingested by baby. Oh well, I can dream on…..

Size can matter. Some newborn babies have really little mouths. And some mothers have large nipples and/or areaolas. Even a baby with a good latch may cause mother some pain because they just can’t get much in their mouth yet. Again, patience is the key here. As baby quickly grows, nursing will become more comfortable. In the meantime, you can help yourself and baby out a little by making a “breast sandwich,” as my pediatrician calls it. Elongate and narrow the areaola by grasping the breast between your thumb and fingers and pull back towards your chest wall. This will help baby get more in his/her mouth during latch-on.

It might be hormonal. If you are nursing a baby and your cycles have returned (or are trying to come back) then you might experience some pain before or during your period, and possibly during ovulation. You can thank your hormones for this. The pain might be localized, and feel like a plugged duct, and may only affect one breast. Or you may have all over soreness on both sides. In either case, it will subside without any treatment within a day or so, and will mostly likely come back again with the next cycle. Moist heat and mild pain relievers can help. The good news is (once again) that you and your nursing baby aren’t doing anything wrong.

I know that painful nursing can be very frustrating, especially when you see pictures everywhere of mothers and babies gazing peacefully into each other’s eyes during a breastfeeding session. But if you’re doing it right and have ruled out medical problems and latch problems, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. The tincture of time and patience will almost certainly see you and baby through to a fulfilling nursing relationship.


Tags: breastfeeding

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