What’s so hard about breastfeeding?

When I was pregnant, I remember filling in a form for my midwife. ‘Do you plan to breastfeed?’ she asked. ‘I’m going to try,’ was my answer. I’d been warned by people: Breastfeeding is actually quite hard. You’d think it comes naturally but it’s actually harder than you think. Don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t work out. And so I thought it best to be (what I thought was) realistic. It was like planning to cook a fancy dinner for friends but hey, if it was a flop, I could always hit Woolworths. I’ll give it a go, I thought, but I wasn’t too bothered either way.

Then I birthed a baby. Hello, hormones. If you think that hormonal stuff is hard during pregnancy, wait till Day 3 postpartum when your milk comes in. (All the emotions. All of them.) Birth changes you, in numerous and nuanced ways, and motherhood, it turns out, is a mindfuck.

Things that didn’t seem that important pre-baby were now everything. One of these things for me was breastfeeding.

With the right advice and support, breastfeeding is possible for most women, but I’m not going to downplay how hard breastfeeding was for me at first. It was hard. There was lots of crying (from both Reid and me).Thankfully, I didn’t suffer from cracked and bleeding nipples (a common horror), though I did experience nipple blanching due to vasospasm, which I don’t wish on anyone.

I did hate breastfeeding actually. I hated it – everything about it – for three full months, until one day, something changed and I started to feel it: that bonding experience everyone had been telling me about. I was battling with postnatal anxiety and initially, I’d actually thought breastfeeding was making bonding with my baby harder, because breastfeeding itself was so hard and frustrating. But after three months?

Breastfeeding was the best.

So yes, the early days were tough, physically and emotionally, and ‘giving it a go’ with breastfeeding turned out to involve a lot more perseverance than my pregnant self thought would be necessary.

But as it turned out, that wasn’t the only difficult thing about breastfeeding.

One of the hardest things about breastfeeding for me – and not one person warned me about this part when I was pregnant – was other people.

The judgy, uptight, unsupportive people who think that breastfeeding in public has more to do with them than it does a hungry baby who just happens to be hungry right here, right now. Motherhood is really hard enough without having to worry about offending strangers (who, hey, can just look away) when your starving baby is screaming.

The misinformed people who tell you your baby will sleep through if you stop breastfeeding. (Some quick research will tell you that this theory has been debunked.)

The misguided people who ask you when you’re going to stop being a cow. (Um, I have never been a cow. I am a mammal; a cow is also a mammal.)

The nosy people (strangers, sometimes!*) who ask you if you’re breastfeeding your newborn, like it’s any of their business, and nod approvingly when you say yes; often the same people who, a few months later, will note again and again that you are still breastfeeding, not in a ‘You go, Mama!’ kinda way, but like this is new information to you, like you hadn’t realised, and now that they’ve pointed it out to you, you will surely start weaning.

[*When Reid was a few weeks old, a complete stranger in the pharmacy not only asked me if I was breastfeeding, but if I’d had a natural birth. I was too sleep-deprived to point out her rudeness, but as I walked back to the car, I did wonder in amazement what she would have said if I’d said no. Why do people think it’s okay to be so intrusive?]

This week is World Breastfeeding Week. We need World Breastfeeding Week because breastfeeding is not easy.

When I was breastfeeding, I was lucky to get good advice and a lot of support. I attended a breastfeeding support group every single Wednesday for three full months. One Saturday, with stinging nipples and a screaming infant, I was really ready to give up. I emailed my lactation consultant, who responded (on a weekend! What a lovely woman) with encouragement and a sign-off that still sticks with me: ‘Lactationally yours, Laura’. It implied: ‘I’m here to help you breastfeed your baby. You’ve got this.’ I went on to breastfeed for another year because of that email.

Sometimes all we need is a little support. And that’s why we need World Breastfeeding Week.

But while World Breastfeeding Week does a lot to educate moms about breastfeeding and offers valuable support, World Breastfeeding Week is not just for moms. Oh no, it’s for everyone.

It’s about normalising breastfeeding. It’s about showing dads and grandparents and siblings and even strangers not only how to be supportive, but why it’s important to be supportive. (And yes, sometimes ‘being supportive’ means not imposing personal opinions but letting moms develop their own personal breastfeeding relationships with their babies.)

I’m no longer breastfeeding, but the breastfeeding relationship I had with Reid remains one of the most special experiences of my life. I’m grateful that I received encouragement when I needed it. I’m also glad I was able to (mostly) ignore the unsolicited ‘advice’ and unhelpful opinions, although it wasn’t always easy.

So mom friends, wherever you want to breastfeed, whenever you want to breastfeed and for however long you want to breastfeed, you won’t hear a peep from me. Reach out if you need to, but remember, breastfeeding is about you and your baby. You’ve got this.

Breastfeeding