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What Is It Really Like to Breastfeed?

Nursing isn’t quite as simple as you might think. These real parents share their stories.

Medically reviewed in February 2022

Updated on May 9, 2022

Woman breastfeeding infant
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Most parents-to-be are told this familiar mantra during pregnancy: Breast is best.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does recommend that infants should be exclusively breastfed and/or receive pumped breast milk for about six months after being born. But for some parents and babies, nursing just isn’t that simple.

How do you know if breastfeeding is right for you?

It’s hard to have the answers prior to your child’s birth, but hearing from parents who’ve already gone through the experience may give you some insight. These eight parents—some who breastfed and some who didn’t—get real about what it’s like to nurse and pump, all while adjusting to life as a new parent.

Pregnant mothers discussing breastfeeding
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Taking a breastfeeding class can be beneficial

Although not much can prepare you for the act of breastfeeding except, well, breastfeeding, many hospitals, OBGYN practices, and support programs like La Leche League offer preparedness classes for parents-to-be.

After giving birth to a baby boy, Jaimi Sharkey says that these classes were beneficial to her. “I felt really prepared for the act of breastfeeding itself because I took a class before I gave birth.”

Breastfeeding classes can help parents learn more about latching and various nursing positions. They also offer the opportunity to ask breastfeeding questions. Remember, though, that every parent and every baby is different. Just because you learn a proper technique in class doesn’t mean it will always work.

Your birthing hospital, OBGYN, or La Leche League can refer you to breastfeeding support classes and provide recommendations to lactation consultants. These are trained health professionals who can help you through obstacles that you might encounter after your baby is born.

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You’ll become familiar with clogged ducts and nipple issues...

If you’re able to breastfeed, those moments spent with your child can be very special. But they may not always be easy. Many parents deal with uncomfortable issues, including clogged ducts and nipple issues.

Clogged ducts: It’s a common problem during pumping and breastfeeding. Clogged ducts happen when milk ducts become blocked with milk, preventing them from draining properly. This may lead to a condition called mastitis, with flu-like symptoms that can include fever, achiness, and exhaustion. Treatment usually includes resting as much as possible, massaging the breast, and taking medications such as ibuprofen or antibiotics. Most healthcare providers (HCPs) recommend continuing to nurse, with frequent feeds. Although breastfeeding can be painful, continuing to nurse can help relieve the blockage.

Nipple discomfort: Kristy Cummings, a mother of three from Bloomfield, New Jersey, wishes she knew how sore nipples can get, especially during the first few days of breastfeeding. Nipple pain can occur if your baby isn’t latching correctly, or comes off the breast without breaking suction first. It can also happen when you wear a bra that’s too tight or use a feeding position that isn’t ideal.

In addition to proper feeding techniques, Cummings swears by nipple cream to soothe the area. “The nurses at the hospital gave me nipple cream and now I recommend that to all of my friends who are planning to nurse.” Covering your nipple with a warm washcloth can temporarily relieve pain, too.

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...And engorgement and leaking

In addition to clogged ducts and nipple discomfort, there will be some adjustments as your milk starts to come in.

Engorgement: It’s completely normal for your breasts to be heavier and larger when you’re breastfeeding. Engorgement is when breasts feel extremely swollen, hard, and painful due to swelling when you first start nursing or being overfull with milk later on. Engorgement can happen at any time, but it’s most common three to five days after birth. Other symptoms of engorgement include warmth, redness, throbbing, nipple flattening, and fever.

It can help to talk with a lactation nurse about techniques to prevent infection, like massaging the breasts, improving your baby’s latch, and implementing a pumping schedule.

Leaking: As your body starts to adjust to making milk on a schedule, another common issue is leaking. Breasts may also spray or drip. You can address dampness with nursing pads that fit into your bra to absorb the liquid. Try wearing darker clothing, so leaking won’t be as obvious. And be prepared for some leaking during pregnancy, too, says Katie Hall, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “I started leaking around 20 weeks and had to wear the pads daily.”

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As your baby gets older, they may get distracted

One thing Sharkey did not know was that it would get harder to nurse as her little one grew. “As your baby gets older and they become more aware of their surroundings, they get distracted and come on and off the breast or want to nurse for shorter periods of time,” she says. This can be frustrating and can cause worries about whether your baby is getting enough to eat. These distractions can start as early as two months, since they’re able to see more clearly at this age and can peak around six to 12 months.

You can gauge whether or not your baby is hungry by observing their body language—they may look aware and alert, clench their fists, or bring their hands and fingers up to their mouths. Crying is also a common sign of hunger, but that can mean your child has been hungry for a while.

If you find your infant is getting distracted while you’re nursing, try breastfeeding somewhere dark and quiet and making eye contact with them. Squeeze in a nursing session when they wake, since babies tend to be calmer then. And if they just aren’t having it, you can try again later. Talk with an HCP if you notice any weight loss or if your baby isn’t filling diapers regularly.

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It can feel empowering

Some parents feel a sense of accomplishment when breastfeeding their child. “Breastfeeding made me feel like a superwoman,” Sharkey says. “Here I was feeding this baby all on my own—it was so empowering!”

One study published in the journal Medicine (Baltimore) in 2022 looked into this idea.  The randomized controlled trial included 226 women with gestational diabetes for whom breastfeeding may pose extra challenges. Researchers found that women who received online and telephone breastfeeding support had significantly higher feelings of self-efficacy and were more likely to be exclusively breastfeeding six months after their babies were born, compared to women who received standard care.  

Jenna Ketchen of Boston, Massachusetts adds that breastfeeding is a good reminder to slow down and savor time with your little one. “I was able to provide something for her that no one else could, and as an individual who is motivated to do everything, breastfeeding often put me in a situation where I was forced to stop and slow down.”

Woman feeding baby
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Not All Parents Are Able To Breastfeed

And that’s okay. Here are some reasons that prevent some parents from breastfeeding:

  • Certain infections like HIV or active herpes sores on the breast
  • Currently undergoing chemotherapy or receiving internal radiopharmaceuticals for treatment or tests
  • Taking certain medications
  • An infant has a genetic condition like galactosemiaa

In addition, some parents simply cannot produce enough milk, have trouble achieving a good latch or choose not to breastfeed. “I wish parents knew that nursing doesn’t work for some people,” says Emily Ann Carrigan, of Augusta, Georgia, who had latching issues after giving birth to her first child. It can help to talk with a lactation consultant, since some women are able to resume breastfeeding after having these issue or conditions.

For some parents, breastfeeding just doesn’t work. Lauren Cordy, of St. Louis, Missouri also had trouble with milk supply and latching after giving birth. Eventually the constant pressure to continue trying when breastfeeding wasn’t working affected her well-being. “My husband eventually said, ‘You can stop’ and he was so right. I was running myself ragged trying to get it to work and really, in the end, feeding your baby nutritionally balanced food is all that matters.”

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Formula is a great option, too

Even if you began your parenthood journey with the intention of breastfeeding, don’t beat yourself up if you need to switch to formula. Formula contains a mixture of proteins, sugars, fats, and vitamins that are essential for your baby’s health. No matter how your child is fed, the most important thing is that they are getting enough to eat.

Another formula bonus? You’ll be able to lean on others to help with feedings. “Adding formula helped my child get enough to eat, stay awake for feedings, and gain weight back,” says Anna Dubose. “It also gave my husband the chance to help with mornings feedings, so I could get some rest.”

Dubose had trouble producing milk, which is what led her to switch to formula. “It was not my original plan, but it worked for us. Parents need to be reminded that they will do the right thing because they know their baby the best.”

Even though Jennifer Jovcevski, of Rochester, New York, was able to breastfeed, she adds that she wants parents to know that if you physically cannot breastfeed or you find yourself constantly upset and not enjoying time with your newborn, formula is a great option.

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Breastfeeding and traveling takes planning

Once you begin breastfeeding or pumping, your life may feel more complicated when heading out of town. Ketchen, who continued traveling to see family and friends after giving birth, asks herself the following questions before leaving the house:

  • Do I have a nursing blanket in case I feel like using it in a public place?
  • Can I get the window seat on the plane so I have an extra few inches of space on my left or right?
  • Did I remember my pump parts and backup parts? Do I have an electrical cord and a car charger with me?
  • Is there a refrigerator in the hotel room? And if not, will the front desk keep my milk cold without giving me weird looks?
  • Is Transportation Security Administration (TSA) going to give me a hard time for the ice packs not being frozen enough? (Pro tip: You can print out the TSA policy and bring it with you on each trip.)
Woman working on laptop
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Pumping at work may pose some logistical problems

The logistics of pumping at work can be tricky, too.

“When I started pumping at work, it was a circus,” describes Carrigan, a high school teacher. “An IT man walked in on me the first week back, my students constantly came in to get something they forgot, all while I was hiding in the corner of my classroom during planning period.”

Try these tips to stay organized while pumping:

  • Keep nursing necessities in your bag at all times.
  • Wash and pack pumping supplies the night before.
  • Schedule your pumping time as a meeting on your calendar.
  • Stash extra nursing supplies in the car.

Remember to be flexible, as plans with a newborn can often change by the minute. Stay calm and recruit someone to help you when you need it.

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It Can Be A Lot Of Work

Remember that breastfeeding can be hard work, especially if you have trouble producing enough milk.

Hall, who had a premature little one, had her husband and her mom help to manually express her milk, just to have enough for her baby. “I was pumping every two to three hours while I was tired, recovering from a C-section, and struggling with a premature baby. But before long I ended up with freezers full of breastmilk—enough for months!”

Jovcevski had trouble producing enough milk at first, too, which led her to nurse around the clock. “I breastfed my baby, then I pumped, then I rested for half an hour until I was back at it again. I did this 24/7 for weeks and it was so frustrating, because when I pumped, my milk barely covered the bottom of the bottle.”

Every parent-baby duo is unique, so your breastfeeding challenges and successes may differ from that of another parent. It can even be different from one child to the next. As you embrace life as a new parent (whether breastfeeding or not), reach out to other parents, family members, and friends. Talk to your pediatrician, OBGYN, or lactation consultant if you’re having trouble or feeling upset. Knowing that your support team is with you can make a difference.

Slideshow sources open slideshow sources

Eidelman AI. Breastfeeding and the use of human milk: an analysis of the American Academy of Pediatrics 2012 Breastfeeding Policy Statement. Breastfeed Med. 2012;7(5):323-324.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Benign breast conditions. Last updated February 2021.
Dixon JM. Lactational Mastitis. Uptodate. Last updated January 15, 2020.
Spencaer J. Common problems of breastfeeding and weaning. Last updated October 18, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2 months. Last reviewed March 31, 2022.
La Leche League Canada. Breastfeeding the distracted baby (6-12 months). Last updated November 2, 2021.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Breastfeeding your baby. Last updated May 2021.
La Leche League USA. Breastfeeding your distracted baby. Accessed May 5, 2022.
You H, Lei A, Xiang J, Wang Y, Luo B, Hu J. Effects of breastfeeding education based on the self-efficacy theory on women with gestational diabetes mellitus: A CONSORT-compliant randomized controlled trial. Medicine (Baltimore). 2020;99(16):e19643.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breastfeeding contraindications. Last reviewed March 2, 2022.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Infant formula: safety do’s and don’ts. Last reviewed April 22, 2021.

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