Why Is Breastfeeding So Hard?

Why is breastfeeding so hard? Rachel Hurn explains.
Image courtesy of Rachel Hurn.

Editor: Genevieve Walker

One AWT editor juggles the demands of being a new mom learning to breastfeed in a big city: her milk production schedule, public perception, and the miracle of modern breast pumps.

For some crazy masochistic reason—but really because I was curious to see what my body was capable of—when I gave birth to my daughter last summer I decided to go natural: no meds, no unnecessary medical interventions. Thanks to an OB who spent most of her time down there stretching my perineum, a husband who happily played the role of water boy, and a doula who could make me laugh even as we approached the 18th hour, my birth did something most natural births never do: it more or less looked like my birthing plan. Almost every woman I spoke with beforehand who wanted to do things naturally had to either be induced and then given an epidural, or, worst case scenario, ended their labor with a cesarean. So I considered myself lucky. What didn’t go to plan? Breastfeeding.

 
I was nursing on a couch on the third floor of the Museum of Modern Art, and an older woman sitting on the couch next to mine whispered, “I wish I could be a wet nurse. I love hearing that suckling sound.”
 

I had been warned that breastfeeding wasn’t as intuitive as one would think, that, considering how hard it actually is, it’s amazing we as a species have made it this far. Even my mother, who has never before complained to me about the difficulties of raising an infant, told me not to feel too bad if it didn’t work out. So in the months leading up to the baby’s arrival I primed myself: I read multiple books by Ina May Gaskin, O.G. earth mama, found what seems to be the only insurance-accepted breastfeeding class available in New York City (you’re welcome), and even hired a postpartum doula to instruct me, the babe, and my boobs during those first crucial days. While learning about the intoxicating scent of amniotic fluid or grasping a plastic doll in a cradle hold and pressing it to my boob, I pictured that what was going to be hard was getting that first latch, what the mama industry calls it when a baby takes a big mouthful of your nipple and “latches on.” So I was ecstatic in the hospital when my baby girl awoke from her postnatal stupor, found the bullseye, and started sucking. Even the lactation consultant working in the maternity ward that day was impressed. We were naturals! What I did not expect was that the entire process of breastfeeding, meaning birth to however long I can force myself to keep doing this, was going to be a lot harder.

I write “force” because breastfeeding is not fun, at least not for me. Some women love breastfeeding. Just the other day I was nursing on a couch on the third floor of the Museum of Modern Art, and an older woman sitting on the couch next to mine whispered, “I wish I could be a wet nurse. I love hearing that suckling sound.” This is a pretty creepy thing to say to a stranger, but I prefer it to the discomfort I often see wash over a person’s face when they realize what I’m doing, making me feel like they’ve just caught me pissing on the sidewalk. I have never before wished it was socially acceptable to walk around topless; I do now.[1]

Feeding my daughter would not have been so complicated if she was a consistently good breastfeeder, but she is not. There are evenings when she is so fussy that she won’t latch, afternoons when she decides to feed for two minutes and then stop, essentially skipping a meal. I’ve been told that she’s more alert than most babies her age, and I’m thankful for this. Maybe she’ll win Jeopardy one day. What I’m not thankful for: her head popping off my boob every time someone rustles a newspaper or sneezes or, God forbid, tries to have a conversation with me.

 
I had recently become friends with another new mom who lives across the street, and in what is perhaps the most neighborly thing to have ever happened in NYC, she offered me some of her pumped breast milk.
 

Which brings me to the breast pump. Both a godsend and a curse. A tool for freedom and a reminder of every new mother’s sentence of servitude.[2] Somehow, despite the classes and the books, I didn’t quite grasp until after having the baby that to keep my milk supply up, she would either need to eat or I would need to pump every three to four hours. So if she won’t feed, I need to pump. If she goes to bed at 7 p.m., I should pump before going to bed myself at 10 p.m. If I choose to give her a bottle of pumped milk so that I can have a couple of glasses of wine, I should pump and dump. (It also technically means if she starts sleeping through the night I should wake myself up to pump, but every lactation consultant I’ve talked to has advised me not to bother. We new moms need our sleep.[3])

Inevitably I screw this up. I lose track of time. Don’t pump as often as I should, sometimes causing my supply to dip. The first time this happened I was totally unprepared, no backup milk in the freezer, no formula. I had recently become friends with another new mom who lives across the street, and in what is perhaps the most neighborly thing to have ever happened in NYC, she offered me some of her pumped breast milk.[4]

 
I pumped on the subway and no one knew. I went on a day-long hiking trip while my husband took care of the baby, and I pumped on top of a mountain.
 

I have found the whole process of breastfeeding to be exhausting and infuriating, but one essential tool has saved my sanity, my Willow pump. It’s the first ever hands-free breast pump to fit inside a bra without any external attachments. Let me rephrase that, because it is extraordinary. To use Willow, you don’t have to be attached (stuck) to an outlet. You are not plugged in. You don’t have crazy-ass bottles and cords sticking out of your bra. You are not topless. (All the things that breast pumps for the last 25 years have forced women to do.) The pumps, which are as sleek as a Mac product and are rechargeable, sit inside your bra, and once your milk lets down you can WALK AROUND while wearing them.

Granted, the Willow pumps are not as small as I was hoping. I have always been relatively flat chested and suddenly I look like Joan on “Mad Men” when I’m wearing them. But as the weeks pass—and as my frustration with breastfeeding mounts—I’ve gotten more comfortable with using them in public. I pumped on the subway and no one knew. I went on a day-long hiking trip while my husband took care of the baby, and I pumped on top of a mountain. If all I had was my insurance-provided Medela pump, being away from the baby and an outlet for 12 hours would be impossible. Now it feels like anything is possible.

Willow comes with an app that allows you to track your pumping history (key when I was worried my supply might be dwindling), contains videos to help answer FAQs (perfect for when I was running on three hours of sleep and couldn’t decipher written instructions), and also offers a Coaching Program where you are hooked up with a Willow specialist whom you can text them any time with any question (I took advantage of this not just at the beginning but also as recently as last week).

 
… our daughters will think it’s crazy that we had bottles and wires sticking out of our bras, just like we think it’s crazy that our mothers had to hand pump, just like it’s crazy that their mothers weren’t able to pump at all.
 

This is not to say I have zero complaints. I wish the milk bags weren’t so expensive. They’re about 50 cents a bag, and you can’t reuse them, though they are recyclable, and I was advised to put them directly in my home’s recycling container. I’ve noticed the initial stimulation phase is not as strong as on my Medela pump, meaning it often takes me longer to let down with Willow, making the pumping process more like 20–25 minutes rather than 10–15 minutes. I might feel comfortable enough to use them on the NYC subway where no one knows me—I could be wearing a banana costume without anyone batting an eye—but I will almost certainly never use Willow at my desk at work. (Again, since I am not buxom, it’s pretty hard to hide what’s going on.) Finally, they’re expensive. Being an editor there are certain perks, and full disclosure, Willow gave me pumps to try. Otherwise I may not have chosen to buy them. These babies cost close to $500 and are rarely covered by insurance. My advice is to put it on your baby registry and hope a generous relative or friend buys it for you.

Thing is, now that I have tried Willow, I can’t imagine being a new mom in this millennium without a mobile pump. I think hands-free, mobile pumping is the future of pumping. I think our daughters will think it’s crazy that we had bottles and wires sticking out of our bras, just like we think it’s crazy that our mothers had to hand pump, just like it’s crazy that their mothers weren’t able to pump at all. As I write this, my daughter is at her first day of daycare (which is why I’m suddenly able to sit down and write). I’m pumping. I just looked at my watch and got a twinge of nervousness that I won’t be done pumping by the time I’m supposed to leave the apartment to pick her up. But then I reminded myself that I’m wearing my mobile pump, and while I’m not in love with the idea of walking down the street with these orbs in my bra, if I had to leave I could. And I could keep pumping.

[1] Public breastfeeding is still considered indecent in many parts of the country and the world. In fact, it wasn’t until this year that breastfeeding in public was legalized in all 50 states (Utah and Idaho were the last holdouts, in case you’d like to throw some tomatoes). It’s shameful that it’s taken this long to get the law on the side of mothers and their hungry children. And yet, as much as I say that I don’t care what people think—and I shouldn’t—I still sometimes find myself stroll-running down the sidewalk with my screaming daughter so that I can get her home to feed her instead of standing on the street with my shirt pulled up. Not because it makes me uncomfortable, but because it makes other people uncomfortable.

[2] These days, it’s not only frowned upon to give your baby formula when you have available breast milk, but we can confidently say that breastmilk is better. Among many other benefits, breast milk contains immunity-boosting antibodies, essentially making it a natural vaccine. And the benefits go both ways. Moms who breastfeed have a lower risk of breast and ovarian cancer, the hormone oxytocin is released with breastfeeding, which helps the uterus return to its pre-pregnancy size, and breastfeeding burns between 400-600 calories a day, making it easier to lose the pregnancy weight.

[3] I take it back. We started sleep training this week and on the first night I didn’t bother pumping, and I woke up with a clogged duct. Goddamnit.

[4] In case you’re wondering, this is not the same as, say, donating blood. You can absolutely use someone else’s breast milk to feed your baby—you don’t have to be a “match”—and there are services available to do just that. The American Academy of Pediatrics says it’s better for a mother to use donor milk than it is to use infant formula.