My Idealized Vision of Breastfeeding vs. Reality
Before my son was born, my image of breastfeeding was of quiet, tender, fulfilling moments shared between a mother and child. I pictured peaceful feeding sessions filled with smiles and coos. I imagined us under the moonlight with fireflies dancing around. Turns out I was straight up delusional. 15 months in, my son and I have a successful breastfeeding relationship, but it is far from peaceful and I struggled with a lot of pain and frustration at the start.
While there was a big mismatch in my expectations vs. breastfeeding reality, my son and I also struggled at the start because I apparently have flat nipples. I’m not sure how I missed this critical piece of information… I guess I never really compared other women’s nipples to my own? Or maybe the problem was I never heard of flat nipples? We hear jokes about inverted nipples, but I didn’t know flat nipples were a thing!
The Early Days – Not Latching, Pushy Nurses, and Nipple Shields
So, part of my romantic breastfeeding vision involved my son latching on naturally and drinking heartily shortly after birth. Needless to say, this did not happen at all. My doula advised hand expressing and feeding him with a dropper, but I was too chicken to stand up to the pushy nurses and actually do this during my hospital stay. Instead, I endured many hours of them alternately pulling on my nipples and then squeezing my breasts while trying to get my son to latch. I appreciate their efforts but it was really just painful for me and frustrating for my son.
Plus, once the nurses decided they didn’t think my son would latch, they brought in a nipple shield. I’d never heard of nipple shields but they were like magic – nipple shield applied and poof! baby was suddenly nursing. So, we nursed with nipple shields, but I hated them!
It was frustrating to always have to put it on before the baby could feed, especially at night or if we were out. The shield always seemed dirty even when I’d just sterilized it. The baby can’t achieve a perfect seal when nursing with a nipple shield, so a lot of milk leaks out and I felt like I smelled like a stale dairy farm all the time. I also worried because I read the shields could prevent the baby from taking in enough milk. But most of all, this vision of a natural and dreamy breastfeeding relationship that I was still clinging to most certainly did not involve the annoying nipple shields.
Weaning Off of Nipple Shields
I was determined to wean Baby C from the shields and we worked at it for a couple of months.At the start of each feed I would try to have him latch without the shield. Often, he wouldn’t, so we would use the shield a bit and then try without the shield again. And again. And again. And again. It went on for weeks and I really didn’t think he’d ever feed directly without the nipple shields, but slowly he started latching without them, then nursing a bit without them. Very gradually the time spent feeding without the nipple shields increased until he was nursing directly all the time!
I was elated to not be using the nipple shields, but I was also making a mistake. I didn’t pay attention to his latch AT ALL. Yeah, it hurt, but I was so glad he was feeding without the shields that I didn’t want to do anything that would disrupt him. Fast forward two days and my nipples were cracked and bleeding.
A New Challenge – Vasospasm in my Nipples
At this point I tried out my breast pump so I could express some milk and give my nipples a bit of time to heal. This helped with healing, but not with my little one’s latch. Enter the next issue… his latch caused me to develop vasospasms, or nipple blanching, in both breasts. This pain rivaled childbirth in intensity! At first I didn’t know what was wrong and I had him checked for tongue tie and also suspected thrush. I was now at the point where I would sob in pain at the start of each feeding. The nipple blanching also happened between feedings so I couldn’t find any relief.
Even the breast pump couldn’t help reduce my pain because the suction sometimes triggered the vasospasms. I had to focus on a good latch and rely on heat therapy and occasionally ibuprofen to work through the pain. The nipple blanching lasted about 2 months, but eventually, as Baby C reached 5 months old I could finally breastfeed without shields and with less pain. I would say breastfeeding was finally pain-free at about 6 months postpartum.
7 Months In – Starting to Enjoy Breastfeeding
Honestly, nursing is like a reset button. Fell and bumped your head? Milk will make you feel better. Cranky because you’re hungry? Have a sip of milk and then we’ll prepare your dinner. Tired of sitting in my lap on the plane? Let’s nurse a bit. Convenience, by far, is my favorite part of breastfeeding!
Click below to read my tips on managing vasospasm and nipple pain: