“It shouldn’t hurt” and other myths about feeding babies

By Marissa Marangoni

This essay likely falls into the TMI category, so if you are opposed to reading about bodily functions, bodily fluids, and/or babies, scroll on.

I decided I was going to nurse my baby before he was born almost purely because the cost of formula is astronomical, and then because all you ever hear is how breast milk is the best thing for your baby.

Nursing is quite the thing, and unless you really immerse yourself in mom-to-be land prior to giving birth, it’s pretty easy to be completely in the dark about how the whole process works. Thanks to my anxiety, I wasn’t totally blindsided and had done some research, but I still had no idea how hard it was going to be. The thing that frustrated me the most about my adventures in nursing was the prevalence and widespread acceptance of various myths about breastfeeding. That said, I’d like to shed light on some of the commonly accepted falsehoods about feeding a baby milk from your body.

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Lie #1: Breastfeeding shouldn’t hurt.

HAHAHAHAHAHA. Give me a break.

Some sources follow this up by saying it’s normal to be a bit “tender.” Again, excuse me while I laugh.

Hours after I birthed my child, a nurse came into my hospital room and saw me wince as my ravenous, shark-gummed newborn chewed at my chest.

“It shouldn’t hurt,” she said. I swear she almost rolled her eyes.

“It doesn’t,” I lied.

She left.

Had I not been in a drug-induced haze and already on a very deep descent into postpartum disorder land, I would have said more than that.  I can’t tell you how many times I heard this ridiculous myth. While I am not exactly a logical person, it seemed very logical to me that having someone biting your skin for the first time ever would hurt—despite the widespread messaging to the contrary. 

Maybe this is a case of semantics. If so, people should qualify that nursing shouldn’t hurt forever. Nursing will hurt at first. It might even make you imagine your little sweet baby has razor teeth in his mouth. It should, however, get better. By about 6 months into nursing, I was pain-free.

Lie #2: Formula is Satan’s creation. 

While I don’t recall anyone using those exact words to express this idea, I literally just read on the internet that there is “no excuse” for feeding your baby formula because every mother can make milk…

…I guess tell that to the mothers who can’t? Or the mothers who can but have a baby who never figures it out? Here’s the thing: formula exists because there is a demand for it. It’s engineered to provide for babies’ nutritional needs. Babies fed formula grow up just fine. 

I cannot tell you what a failure I felt like when my milk hadn’t arrived and had to use formula. And you know why I felt like that? Because there was so much garbage out there that told me I should. I felt utterly humiliated and deeply disappointed during the few days when I didn’t produce milk and had to feed my kid formula through a tube taped to my body. I shouldn’t have felt so bad. 

I worried incessantly throughout the course of my breastfeeding adventure any time I wasn’t making 30 oz. of milk per 9 hours. There were occasions when I had to hand a grandparent a can of formula before I left for work because my body wasn’t keeping up with J’s appetite. I wanted so badly to get to reach his first birthday and be able to say I did it all by myself, but by the time he ate his first birthday cake, I didn’t care anymore. 

Don’t do what I did. If you want/must feed your baby formula, do it. And don’t feel bad about it.

Lie #3: Breastfeeding will be fulfilling and provide you with contentment unlike any other.

There are countless images of women smiling down adoringly at their infant in their arms while nursing. Sometimes it’s like that, but you know, sometimes it’s just not. 

Did you know that breastfeeding might cause you to feel depressed or angry or extremely anxious? I had no idea. This is an actual condition called D-MER (dysphoric milk ejection reflex—read more about it here), and sometimes it gets better, but sometimes the only solution is to quit breastfeeding. I was gifted with extreme anxiety with breastfeeding. It made sitting down to feed my child hellish for the first few weeks. My heart would race, I’d sweat and feel nauseous, and spent every nursing session experience in an intense and overwhelming panic. Luckily, once I was medicated, the feelings died down.

Later, yes, breastfeeding was a beautiful experience, but it took a long time to get there. It got really great for me because I started feeling euphoric every time my milk let down instead of like I wanted to head for the hills. It might take you a long time to get to the point where nursing your child is pleasant for you. That’s OK. You can stop if you need to.

Lie #4: It’s going to make you lose weight.

For some people, sure, but not all. While I dropped weight very quickly after I delivered J, I gained a lot of it back while I nursed him. Breastfeeding burns a lot of calories, that is true, but some bodies (maybe most) like to replenish those calories and add some bonus ones just in case. I felt like I was starving all the time when I nursed J for about nine or 10 months. My stomach would growl, and denying myself food just meant that I made less milk, so I gave in. A lot. For a long time. 

Lie #5: Your baby will nurse every three hours.

Except maybe when they cluster-feed, which is defined as a period of a few hours in the day where the baby will fuss just a few minutes after you’ve nursed and want to do it again. And again. And again. But even then, the doctor tells you your baby will go back to nursing every three hours after cluster-feeding.

J wanted to eat around the clock. Every 20 to 30 minutes, without reprieve. Day after day after day. The second he stopped, I’d try to feed myself, but by the time I let the dogs outside and made a sandwich, he’d be crying for more milk. 

I called the doctor, talked to a lactation consultant, and even took J for a “weigh and feed,” where I nursed J in front of a consultant and then she weighed him to make sure he was getting enough milk and not demanding more because my supply was low. My supply wasn’t low. 

I spent a week trying to stretch out the time between feedings to make sure my baby wouldn’t grow up to be a very needy person, but in the end, I gave up and gave in and just tried to accept my fate of never doing anything else besides nursing. I watched a lot of TV.

Your baby might not be one of the babies who only eats every three hours. You might not get a three-hour break for a very long time. That’s OK. Just go with it, and if you and your child are healthy, do what you need to do for your sanity. Eventually, J stopped nursing around the clock, and I was able to have more of a life.

Lie #6: You should be proud of your breastfeeding accomplishments.

I don’t think you shouldn’t be proud of producing milk, but because of this rampant ideal, there is an overemphasis of breastfeeding as a win. That overemphasis is just another thing that makes mothers feel less than when their experience is less than this “ideal.” Looking back at my own experience, I’m proud that I managed to make working full-time and producing milk a reality. It was very difficult, pumping is its own special hell, and I never intended to keep going after J turned a year old—but then I did. You don’t have to be proud just because you decide to manufacture milk. You should be proud of nourishing your baby the way that works best for you and them.

Lie #7: You shouldn’t be embarrassed of it.

As a follow up to #7, there’s this belief that because you are so proud of milk making-and-feeding, there’s no way you will be embarrassed by it. You know, you can try as hard as you want not to be embarrassed when milk soaks through the front of your shirt at work, but you might find your face turning a little red anyway — and that’s fine. When your baby unlatches in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, turning his head to grin at all the other patients, you might find yourself a little embarrassed as your body is now on display for everyone to see. That’s okay. 

When you have to wash your pump parts in the shared kitchen at the office, you might feel a bit on edge as people walk in and out to make their coffee directly next to the sink. That’s normal. 

While I don’t think you should be embarrassed about anything related to feeding your kid, you’re bound to find yourself avoiding eye contact with the guy who walks into the closet-turned-mothers’-room because you forget to lock the door while you’re hooked up to the sucking machine — and that’s just fine.

Lie #8: The bond you will form with your child by breastfeeding is unmatched.

There are so many ways to bond with your child. Feeding them undoubtedly forms a strong connection between them and you — but that is true for all feeding, all ways.

Lie #10: Medical professionals are the best sources of information and expertise on breastfeeding.

Unfortunately, many medical professionals have various roles with little education on milk-making. All I can say is that you should trust your instincts. If you think your baby is spitting up too much, ask questions until you get answers. And if you get answers that seem to come too quickly or put your problem in a box and decorate it with a bow before unwrapping it, go get second opinions. Conduct your own research. This website was an invaluable resource throughout my entire milk production experience, as were other mothers. If you don’t know other mothers, there are plenty of forums and groups online where you will find them. They’re usually more than happy to help.

Breastfeeding is not always the idyllic experience as it is portrayed. Instead of padding into the nursery in your robe and slippers at sunrise to be greeted by coos and a sweet sleepy on the face of your angel first thing in the morning, you may be pulling milk-soaked towels from under your back at 5 am and cringing as you change your t-shirt and put a bra on just to go unhook it so monster jaws can angrily feed, again, for the third time since 4:30.

It goes without saying that your breastfeeding experience isn’t going to look the way Instagram tells you it will, and that is definitely OK. Don’t do what I did and let yourself get so obsessed with the ways your journey doesn’t fit the pictures you see that you miss the ways that journey is wholly and uniquely yours and your child’s. 

And whatever you do, don’t forget there’s formula. You can use it any time you want.

Marissa is the co-author of Urine Luck, but sometimes she writes about things other than bathrooms. Marissa has been writing for The Devil Strip since August of 2015.