Recently at a party, I was chatting with a breastfeeding mother about my writing on breastfeeding, and I asked her what articles she would find helpful. She told me that she was sick and tired of reading how breastfeeding pain isn’t “normal” when every woman she knows experienced pain at the beginning. She asked me if it wouldn’t be more realistic to tell women about the possibility for pain. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I think my conclusion is that breastfeeding pain should NOT be normal, but it realistically IS the new normal.
When looking at the word normal, it’s important to remember what it represents. One could argue that an epidural is not a “normal” way to give birth – but when 90% of women get them, they become normal. There is a difference between a “historical normal” and a “contemporary normal.” In contemporary America, at least, where women give birth in hospitals, under epidural anesthesia, with a myriad of perinatal interventions done on birth and baby, without being surrounded by women in their lives who have breastfed, without sufficient immediate support for breastfeeding, the sad truth is that some breastfeeding pain is probably normal. Further, the books say that some discomfort is normal but pain is not. But the fine line between pain and discomfort is hard to define, and differs from woman to woman. I have never found this advice helpful.
What is important for women to know is that making the choice to tolerate their pain (sometimes severe!) while *simultaneously* and *immediately* getting help from an experienced peer or professional to identify and correct what caused the pain will make it short lived. I have always suspected that if women had educated help on hand for the first several feeds after birth, and if women were taught to read feeding cues and to nurse very frequently (like 10-12 times or more) each of the first 24-36 hours we would have very little pain, very few women who had “insufficient milk supply,” reduced jaundice, and amazing breastfeeding rates. Less birth intervention would also help, allowing women to focus on breastfeeding after birth without also recovering from surgeries and anesthesia, but that is really a secondary battle to having support who CAN mitigate these issues when they occur.
A huge problem is that lactation support, when even available, is often staffed limited hours, while women give birth 24/7. It is key to have someone there to help if not for the first feed, than *definitely* for the second, which should follow shortly after the first, and as long as it takes. Breastfeeding should take priority over room changes, paperwork and various other hospital needs after birth. Anything that can wait in favor of establishing breastfeeding should wait. Until this happens, breastfeeding pain will probably remain normal.
My message to women would be to take measures into your own hands. Just as some women line up a doula to support a natural birth in a hospital, line up your own support to breastfeed. This can be a lactation consultant or educator, or a well-educated friend who family member who has breastfed (with a backup professional in case help beyond the basics is needed). See my articles in the “Starting off Right” and “Finding Support” sections of the BellaOnline Breastfeeding main site. Understand that breastfeeding pain or formula use can be turned around, usually quickly, and that the faster you seek help, the better. Lack of support and education following birth are not your *fault* but not making the choice to then get that support and education is key to eliminating pain and ensuring breastfeeding success.
Looking for great breastfeeding support books? Here are two of my favorites: