Breastfeeding was crazy hard, but weaning is sad too

Guest post by Addie Pobst

EnganchadoMy son Conan is pretty much weaned now, at 13 months. It’s been about a week since he last nursed, and he’s perfectly happy without it. I have mixed emotions about it — on the one hand, it is SO liberating, but on the other hand it’s the end of a really close part of our relationship, a connection we will never have again. But time moves on, and my little guy is rapidly metamorphosing from a baby into a toddler.

Thinking back on my early experience of breastfeeding, the thing that really jumps out is that I never, NEVER believed that we would make it through a whole year. For the first 2.5 months nursing was excruciatingly painful for me. Besides the physical pain, I felt like a total failure because I was constantly in a state of dread regarding the next feeding. A good mama would WANT to feed her baby, right?

That special one-on-one nurturing bonding time that I had so hoped for during pregnancy sure took a LONG time to materialize. I nearly gave up on so many different occasions. In retrospect, only my sheer stubbornness and a sort of twisted sense of maternal self-sacrifice kept me going. Now, a year later, I’m glad I did. Because as horrible as the first couple months were, the later months really did make up for it.

In all my obsessive pre-birth reading and preparation, I didn’t really spend any time at all thinking about breastfeeding. Oh, I looked at a couple of diagrams, knew that colostrum came first and that it was common to experience a little nipple tenderness, etc, etc, but I just sort of assumed it would be easy. I never questioned whether I would or wouldn’t breastfeed, it was just the natural choice — why wouldn’t I? I’m a mammal. I don’t have any body hangups or physical conditions that would prevent it, so how hard could it be?

The answer: Really, really hard.

A big part of the problem (I think) was that we got off to a bad start. Because Conan’s birth was so hard and because I lost a lot of blood, my milk didn’t come in for almost a week. He got pretty grumpy about that, so we started giving him formula from a little syringe-tube thingy that was taped to my nipple. The idea was that he’d think he was getting the milk from the boob (not a bottle) and the nursing action would help stimulate my milk to come in.

Well, you can’t trick a baby, not even a newborn. Within just a few days he knew the good flow came from the little tube taped to the nipple, and he’d wait for it. (That little tube was a serious pain to mess with in the middle of the night, too.) So, as soon as my milk supply seemed to be solid, we went cold turkey off the tube.

Things seemed to be working out OK at first, but Conan was really, really aggressive when it came to nursing. He’d turn his head and snap his jaws down hard on the nipple like a predator pouncing on unsuspecting prey, and he’d jerk back and turn his head without letting go. He’d suck so hard the nipple would be deformed and bloodless after a feeding. My nipples cracked, bruised and bled. Even with tons of pumping, I could only sit out one or maybe two feedings a day — never enough to really recover.

Bad as it was, the pain from the nipple damage was nothing compared to the pain of the milk let-down though. Have you ever run barefoot through the snow and then jumped into a hot tub? You know that burning sensation as the capillaries in your feet expand to allow blood to rush back into them when you hit the hot water? Well, that’s not unlike the burning sensation I experienced every time the milk ducts and milk tubes in my breasts activated and expanded to carry milk to my hungry boy. It felt like being stabbed with burning knives.

I consulted with lactation experts, my midwife, trusted friends, family, la leche league, online breastfeeding forums, and everyone I could think of that might have a solution for us. I tried every possible way of holding Conan, adjusting his latch, nipple shields and creams and pads. Eventually with the help of a prescription cream I was able to heal the surface of the nipples, but the let-down pain persisted. I cried nearly every time Conan nursed. I made fomula bottles for him and then steeled my nerves and cried while I poured them out.

And then one day, in early February, it stopped. It just didn’t hurt anymore. My body finally got used to the flux and flow of the milk through my breasts and it was OK. There was no solution, only time. It was wonderful. Finally, I could nurse my baby and just enjoy how sweet he looked in my arms, greedily gulping milk.

Now, maybe I should end my narrative there, on that happy note. Unfortunately, just a few weeks after we finally got breastfeeding under control, we found out that Conan had stopped gaining weight. He wasn’t getting enough to eat. Arggg! I tried herbs (teas, extracts, caplets, the works), and when that didn’t help enough, even a prescription medication to increase my milk supply but it made me crazy (as in twitchy-and-bug-eyed-insomniac-on-speed crazy). And so, after many weeks of putting myself through hell in order to AVOID giving my boy formula, I ended up giving him formula. That was an emotional wrencher, let me tell you.

So from about three months of age, Conan would nurse first and then we’d offer him a bottle with formula to top him off. It worked out really well. I went back to work full time last spring and pumped three times a day for many months. I even took a pump with me when I traveled to Chicago for a conference, thought I can’t recommend a pump as a traveling companion, nor airport bathrooms as pumping locations. Pumping is quite a hassle in general, so gradually I cut back. Sometime in the late summer I stopped pumping entirely. It was tough at first to make it all the way through the day without relieving the pressure, but eventually my body adjusted again.

By November we were only nursing once a day, as part of the bedtime routine. I wondered how or if we would ever eliminate nursing from that without completely wrecking bedtime (NOT something to trifle with!) or Conan’s good sleep habits. But it just sort of handled itself. He really started to cut back the amount of time he spent nursing before asking for his bottle and eventually he just wanted the bottle.

It’s been a week now since the last time he nursed, and he’s sleeping just fine and my body is fine with it.

Like I said earlier, I’m really glad I stuck with nursing through those first awful months. But I also learned a LOT about myself (like, wow, I am REALLY stubborn) and had to examine some of my assumptions and judgements around what it means to be a good mom because of the difficulty we had. I’m sure it won’t be the last parenting obstacle that comes along, and maybe it will help me handle the next ones with a bit more grace.

But probably not.

Comments on Breastfeeding was crazy hard, but weaning is sad too

  1. This was on my mind the other day. It’s nice to hear someone else’s trials with breast feeding. You want so much to do things the right way and can find your disappointed in yourself because it didn’t go how you thought. I love this post thanks

  2. This sounds scary, I won't lie! I never realized that some people have such a hard time with it. Here's hoping that if and when we have a baby I won't experience the same! It's awesome that you stuck with it 🙂

  3. It was interesting hearing your story, and I'm glad it (in the end) worked out for you….but keep in mind that feeding a baby with formula is not the end of the world. Many women are not able to breastfeed (for all different reasons) and their babies are just fine.

    • We have gotten so anti formula that Moms are not giving their kids enough to eat because they are too afraid of giving them formula. I watched my friend struggle with this. She felt that she was somehow less of a mom if she resorted to formula, but her son was starving, and nursing constantly. Needless to say, she supplemented and everyone is much happier.

  4. Thank you so much for telling your story. It's great to hear that sometimes you can get through the most difficult times just through sheer utter blessed hard-headedness! And, sometimes, you have to let it go and do the best thing for the situation. No mother should feel bad or guilty about making the best choices for their babies and themselves.

  5. Wow, this really hit home for me. My breastfeeding experience was *painfully* similar. I wanted to scream and burn all the books and professionals who would refer to pain during breastfeeding as "slight discomfort" or "nipple soreness," and let-down as "tingling sensation". I realize that those words describe early breastfeeding for many new moms, but for us it was constant bleeding and excruciating pain. I dreaded every meal for the 4 months I nursed; I never got to feel any oozing lovey connection because I was so panicked about the pain. I did the pumping and formula combo from 4 mos on, but once I stopped nursing him directly it was like my body didn't buy it anymore and I dried up fast.

    Eventually (like, 2.5 years later) we found out that our son had a low-attached frenulum that may have been the cause of the pain and his aggressive, insatiable nursing style. "May have been." I'll be having #2 any day now and I can honestly say that I am a nervous wreck about breastfeeding again.

    The worst part was everyone's well-meant "suggestions" on what we were doing wrong. I went to 2 lactation consultants and a couple of pediatricians and they couldn't find anything wrong with his latch or weight gain, so it was very frustrating to hear people repeatedly tell me I was "doing something wrong, because breastfeeding isn't supposed to hurt."

  6. My daughter pretty much refused to breastfeed after a rough start , so I pumped for the first 3 months. Not fun. My in-laws constantly wanted us to be places where I couldn't pump, or would show up at our house while i was topless.

    Ladies I'd just met would ask if I was breastfeeding, and regail me with tales of milk just simply pouring from thier bossoms in such vast quantities as to require donating the surplus to the hospital, or how they never owned a pump because they could just squirt milk into a bowl until it was full. Great. MY kid however, at the sight of a bare boobie coming right at her would scream like a victim of gross negligence until her father rescued her with a bottle and a look of dissaproval. So I did not get to experience the aparrent exhileration of having a tidal wave of milk issue forth from my nipples.

    So anyway, I felt a little guilty when I initially stopped pumping, but we're both so much happier now

    • Yeah, I heard some of those stories too. One of my friends even told me she ruined a suede couch by breastfeeding on it. Let's just say I never endangered the upholstery with my flow!

    • If it makes you feel any better, having too much milk can be pretty difficult as well – I am constantly face with a baby screeching in terror and frustration as my boobs shower him fire-hose style whenever my milk lets down. I've learned that "overactive letdown" actually causes some newborns (ie mine) to nurse even MORE often, because the gulping makes them too exhausted to eat for long. And the frequent nursing makes MORE milk….you get the picture :o)

  7. Thank you so much for sharing! I went through so much the same with my daughter. I remember first of all being really weirded out by breastfeeding (which I realized was ridiculous) but being determined to try, and then COMPLETELY unprepared for the reality of it. It's %*#$ing HARD! AT least it was for me. I cried every single feeding for 6 weeks. But I'm SO glad I did it, and feel much more ready for the challenge with the baby I'm about to have.

  8. My breastfeeding experience was excruciating too. I thought it would come naturally, what could be more natural? Boy was I wrong. It was an incredible learning curve for both of us too. It wasn't until the 3-4th month mark where I didn't dread feedings. Now she is 12 1/2 mos and she just started having formula once a day, because I don't seem to have enough milk in the evening. I cried because even with all of the difficulties in the beginning I am sad too that this phase is coming to an end.
    For new Mom's out there…don't wait or be shy about asking for help, go to breastfeeding clinics, talk to your Midwife/Doctor…La Leche League is definitely a great resource. Thank you for posting this!

  9. Thanks so much for posting this! I almost quit breastfeeding SO many times, but was too "stubborn" to quit. I'm so glad I stuck with it. My son is 10 months old now, and as much as I am looking forward to the freedom of weaning, I will miss the bonding we experience while nursing. Great post!

  10. Great post! I had a similar experience, but found I ididn't have enough supply to pump at all – what there was was only enough for the feed, and that was it. I couldn't manage to make any more. My daughter wasn't gaining great amounts of weight, but enough. This being said, we struggled on and continued until she was 11 months old. My second daughter was a good feeder, but I found I had even less supply than I did with my first! People tell you to sit down and make sure you rest, but this is impossible with a two year old running around and not much support. I still managed to feed her until she was 7 months old. It's an amazing thing to do – breastfeeding – and I'm glad I didn't take the advice of those who said I should stop (mostly concerned friends and family..). I know I did my best, and that's enough for me.

  11. If it weren't for the nipple shield, I don't know if I could have been as stubborn, but other than that from thrush, no more pain! She's one month old & we're not out of the woods yet, but I'm feeling better in general. No more sobbing over my nursing baby!

  12. Wow that’s eerily similar to my experience so far (our boy is six weeks old right now.). We nicknamed him T-Rex, because he waves his useless little arms ineffectually, while snapping violently at my boob, shaking the nipple back and forth in his jaws and, I kid you not, growling. Thanks for giving me hope that things will get better!

  13. I too struggled. My daughter was born way early so my milk barely drip dropped in almost a week after her birth. Then we spent 5 weeks in the NICU where pumping every 3 hours only produced enough for MAYBE 2 feedings a day. We weren't even allowed to try to nurse until about 4 weeks in since she was too small to know how. Then we too used to SNS system trying to trick her into nursing (while formula dropped from the bottle around my neck). Then nipple shields worked…but we still topped off with formula.

    I gave myself till 6 weeks after she was SUPPOSED to be born. Since all the websites said to give a newborn at least that long to really learn…under normal circumstances. I wanted to quit ALL the time!
    Even after those 6 weeks…we were still giving a few bottles a day. Then, somehow, we were able to go solely to bf'ing. Still…I wanted to quit a lot of the time.

    Now my daughter is 11 months old and about to celebrate her first birthday in 3 weeks! I've made it…and that's a HUGE deal after all that we've went though!

    I'm terribly afraid to wean since it's the ONE trick I have up my sleeve to calm her when she's upset (and get her to SLEEP). Weaning with, no doubt, be a slow process over here. I almost feel guilty for stopping after a year, but my god are my boobs tired 😛

  14. Dvora – We called Conan Chomper instead of T-Rex, but you've got the description exactly right! Ow. I'm glad I could give some hope to you new moms, and I'm so amazed by all the people who have had similar experiences. It's nice to know we're not alone, isn't it?

  15. Way to go, mama! I am so glad you shared your success story. And YES, it is a success! You successfully breastfed your baby, even if you had a painful start and some bumps along the way. 🙂 If there was one thing I wish that new moms would realize, it is that yes, breastfeeding IS natural, but it's not automatic. It's a skill that both you and baby have to learn, and you have to re-learn and re-teach with each baby. Yes, there are moms and babies out there that don't have to work on breastfeeding at all, but the vast majority of moms have at least a bit of trouble, and it's NORMAL! The best thing, in my opinion, is to have a support group to depend upon, whether it's a La Leche League group or leader, or your mom or other experienced relative or friend.

    • great comment. I think that new mums often struggle with breastfeeding because, unlike 300 years ago, we don't have the community around us of breastfeeding women, that would help us, give us advice, that would make the whole shebang a much more familiar thing. "Natural" is really a blend of social & cultural.

  16. my son is two weeks old and before i read this , i was seriously considering to stop breastfeeding him.
    i think i have read almost every article about breastfeeding there is out there and they all paint this image of how breastfeeding is going to be a cake walk. i have asked my ob , a lactation consultant , wic and midwives about my issues and they all tell me to suck it up and deal with the "discomfort" , i think the worst part was being told if i really cared about my son i wouldn't supplement him and just continue breastfeeding 🙁 thank you for sharing your story it really provides me with hope .

    • It's great that you want to try and continue on if that's what you want, but to believe that giving him formula is "not caring" is an absolutely ridiculous notion, and as someone who CAN'T breastfeed, I take offense to that comment.

          • If that's the truth, then I take back my comment. I'm just sick and tired of hearing (not just from lactation specialists, doctors, nurses, etc….but moms too) that giving your baby formula = not caring. I'm tired of hearing "oh well, you know it's not good for your baby, right?" It's great for the moms that are able to breastfeed and I totally support that; but we should be totally respectful of those who can't (for whatever the reason!).

    • People say a lot of things without thinking them through. I got a lot of well-meaning but thoughtless advice when I was struggling with BF'ing that made me feel like I was a terrible mother and that using formula would be proof of that. It's hard not to internalize and take personally all those messages, especially when you are emotionally stressed and not getting any sleep!

      But seriously, once I started giving Conan formula and saw the satisfied, happy expression on his face as he drifted off to sleep with a full tummy all that negative BS went away. What you feed your baby is Nutrition, not Nurture. You CAN (and DO) give your baby all the nurturing love he needs while he gets his nutrition from a bottle or with the breast or with a combination of the two.

  17. thank you for sharing. I too, had to tube feed for about the first 10 days because of tongue tie effecting her suck and then leading to low milk. Im so glad I kept at it, and even when I had nipple blanching for 6 weeks, still kept at it, because I look at her playing and growing and I know I made that.

  18. ^^^ Exactly my point!! We ("we" being moms, doctors, nurses, lactation specialists, families, whomever) should be supportive EITHER way. I'm tired of hearing that using formula (or a combination of formula and breast milk) equals not caring for my baby or denying them from their nutrition. We shouldn't be so judgmental-every mom should be able to choose which is best for her and her baby, without any pressure.

  19. ^^^ Exactly my point!! We ("we" being moms, doctors, nurses, lactation specialists, families, whomever) should be supportive EITHER way. I'm tired of hearing that using formula (or a combination of formula and breast milk) equals not caring for my baby or denying them from their nutrition. We shouldn't be so judgmental-every mom should be able to choose which is best for her and her baby, without any pressure. 🙂 We need to support each other!!

  20. ^^^ Exactly my point!! We ("we" being moms, doctors, nurses, lactation specialists, families, whomever) should be supportive EITHER way. I'm tired of hearing that using formula (or a combination of formula and breast milk) equals not caring for my baby or denying them from their nutrition. We shouldn't be so judgmental-every mom should be able to choose which is best for her and her baby, without any pressure.

  21. After a not so ideal birth, we had an emergency c-section at 10 days past due, as well as her passing ALOT of meconium in the womb and having to be excessively suctioned, my little baby girl WOULD NOT latch for at least 3 days after. She would not open her mouth at all. I had to pump the colostrum and give it to her from a syringe. She finally did latch but she was also "tongue-tied". Our pediatrician didn't think it was much of a big deal so we did two weeks of excruciatingly painful, stressful and heartbreaking nursing before we went into the clinic to have a "frenulectomy" (a very fancy word for a very easy procedure of getting her frenulum clipped). It took a few more weeks of nipple shields and prescription nipple cream but like the original poster i am SO SO VERY GLAD we persevered and I am now going thru the sadness of her self-weening at 10 months. At least she is choosing to ween on her own, I guess? 🙂

  22. Good for all you mamas who made it through breastfeeding! I am a self-confessed breastfeeding wimp. After recovering from a C-section with my big boy (he was 9lbs 7oz at birth) breastfeeding started off OK but then became extremely painful with not much result. About two weeks after he was born, I caught a look at myself "hooked up" to my pump (not a pretty sight) and having worked for almost 45 min to get a full bottle of milk, I freaked out when I saw it turned pink. Apparently blood got into the milk and while it wouldn't have been seen by me had my son been at the boob, I didn't want to knowingly give him milk contaminated with blood.
    After too many tears and too much guilt, I did break down and give my son formula. Soon after I decided to stop breastfeeding/pumping entirely, and for me, it was the best decision then and even now. Looking at my son — who is now 2-year-old and couldn't be healthier or happier — you would never know he wasn't breastfed.
    I just want the mamas out there who can't or simply don't want to breastfeed for whatever reason to know it's not the end of the world and that your child can grow up just as healthy on formula as on breastmilk.

  23. I had the exact same problem! Natural my buttocks. For weeks my nipples felt like I could light the gas hob with them.
    But then they stopped hurting, although the milk flow still made them really sore. I stopped breast feeding at six months and I think the whole thing was so worth it. It's a different experience for different women, but ultimately, you have to do what's right for you and the bubbah!

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