It's 2019, Let's Just Say Out Loud That Breastfeeding Is Hard

Mayra Hernandez, 32, holds her daughter, Celeste, at a PHFE WIC breastfeeding clinic. (Michelle Faust Raghavan/LAist)

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As you probably know, there is no shortage of boob science about the nutritional benefits of breastmilk and its role in reducing the risk of developing things like diabetes and asthma in kids. For moms, it's linked to a lower risk of breast and ovarian cancers. In short, it's healthy.

There's also no shortage of reasons why some women don't breastfeed. Some women don't want to do it. Some don't because of work. For others, it's not physically possible. It may not be an option at all for adoptive parents, women who've had surgery on their breasts, or radiation, or who have hormonal conditions.

We asked for your breastfeeding stories and more than 100 of you responded. Here are some takeaways. Many of you said:

  • You had trouble with breastfeeding at some point.
  • You needed help with breastfeeding after you left the hospital.
  • You ultimately succeeded in your breastfeeding goals with support from other women (a sister, mother, friend, nurse, lactation specialist, support group or online community).
  • You felt judged either for not being able to breastfeed, for breastfeeding for a short time, or for breastfeeding for a long time.

Another thing we heard in your stories: access to breastfeeding support isn't universal.

WHO BREASTFEEDS?

In California, 87 percent of women breastfeed at some point. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends it exclusively for the first six months, and then in combo with complimentary foods for another six months. The World Health Organization recommends six months exclusively and at least two years total.

Just over half of California women, 53 percent, get to the six-month point breastfeeding exclusively, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 67 percent do it in combination with solid food (the point at which an infant starts solid food can vary).

Breastfeeding numbers have been climbing since the 1970s, but in the 1950s and 60s American women drifted away from the practice. After a couple generations of women stopped, it made it harder for the women who followed, said Cindy Clapp, breastfeeding coordinator for PHFE WIC, a supplemental nutrition program for low-income families.

"We're not watching the people who have come before us breastfeed, and we still really haven't recovered as much as we should have, considering the health benefits of breastfeeding," she said.

WOMEN HELPING WOMEN (SOMETIMES)

For those of you who told us you had a hard time nursing your baby, you used words like "confusing," "isolating," "exhausting" and "an emotional rollercoaster." You expressed guilt for not breastfeeding as long as planned, for supplementing with formula, even for pumping.

"For every mom who we see who has this baby breastfeeding, there were probably many hours of practice, and misunderstanding, and tears that came before that, as the mom and the baby were learning together how to make this happen." said Clapp.

Most of you who wrote to us said breastfeeding only got easier with help from a lactation professional or an experienced wise woman. Clapp recommends women line up help as early as possible, before problems become too difficult.

"Every boob is different, every nipple is different, every [baby's] mouth is different. These all affect breastfeeding," wrote Jessica Cyphers, mom of a two-year-old, living on the East Side.

Still, many women feel extreme pressure to breastfeed exclusively. Some of you say it reached the extent of bullying from strangers.

Ventura County resident Kristen Reid, 32, said she felt like"an absolute failure as a mom" when nothing she tried helped her produce sufficient milk.

"Looking back, I wish anyone could have assured me that 'fed is best'," she wrote.

"Feeding your baby, however they need to be fed, is what should be normalized," wrote Christy Marshall, 36, of Burbank.

"All you can do is try and do your best. And when you need support, reach out," said Nakeisha Robinson, Health Equity Co-Chair with BreastfeedLA. "Any amount of breast milk that you can give your child is amazing, whether it be three days, one day, one year, three years, whatever."

Jessica Cyphers, 32, breastfeeds her son, Ascher. (Courtesy Jessica Cyphers)

ACCESS AND CULTURE

Many factors influence whether and how much you breastfeed: where you live, your race, your income, family support, your health, your baby's health.

White women are most likely to breastfeed exclusively, with rates lower among all other racial groups, according to a survey by the California Health Care Foundation. Women with private insurance are 8 percent more likely to breastfeed exclusively than are women on Medi-Cal, it found.

The Affordable Care Act requires steps to give women more support feeding their babies, but not everyone knows their rights. Even if they do know them, there are limitations and hoops to jump through. For example, not all breastfeeding advisors take insurance, and their fees can be high.

Also, said Robinson, there aren't services in every neighborhood, and some women aren't aware of the resources that are available.

"You may live in an area, let's say, in Lancaster, or South Los Angeles, where there are these gaps of resources," she said. "You may have a lactation professional working, but you might not have local support groups for that."

Then there's the issue of whether the lactation specialist you find is able to serve your needs.

It makes a difference when families have support from a professional who understands them culturally. There are linguistic barriers, too: lactation professionals who speak Chinese are hard to come by in L.A., said Robinson: "We still have to be more inclusive."

In the meantime, if you can only afford online resources, Robinson recommends that you look for groups that included health professionals who actively participate. She suggests Kindred Space LA and Long Beach Breastfeeds, but there are many others.

SOME OF YOUR STORIES

The "magical dream" smacks up against reality

Elena Aragón, 31, lives in Pasadena. Her baby was born in April 2017. She planned to breastfeed for the first year, and made it to 11 months.

"My experience was hard, but also empowering. Before pregnancy, my idea of breastfeeding was this magical dream, full of perfect moments to connect with my baby. Something I was expecting with all my heart.

"When my baby was born, reality hit me. It wasn't that easy. I didn't know how to make him latch correctly, and I ended with my nipples wounded and [sore].

"I received a lot of help from the consultants at the hospital, who made some feedings easier. I still was suffering in others.

"At home, my husband supported me a lot! Always encouraging me, helping me find ways that I could feel more comfortable.

"Still, I used to cry before every breastfeeding, anticipating the pain. After a month or two, it became easier, but the worry of producing enough milk was now in my mind.

"With the encouragement of my husband, I decided to go to breastfeeding classes at the hospital where I had my baby. Those classes where my salvation.

"I learned how to produce more milk and so many tips you don't read in books. I also, with the support of other mothers, learned that it was ok to breastfeed in public, something that I didn't feel comfortable doing, not even covering myself and my baby.

"After that, everything was easier, until the moment I realized that I had no milk stored for my baby once I had to work.

"The next nine months, I was living in worry all the time. Everyday I had to pump for 15 minutes after I breastfed him — the way I learned in the classes — so I could increase my production and have enough milk stored.

"Once I went back to work, it was this eternal and tiring cycle of breastfeeding and pumping, and pumping and pumping, and breastfeeding and pumping. It was so demanding. I felt tired all the time. But I made it! Everyday I had enough milk for my baby to drink the next day and I felt so good!"

Frenectomies, milk blebs and thrush

Jamie Maloney, 33, of Los Feliz, had her daughter in Sept. 2017.

"Breastfeeding was a nightmare from the very start. I had almost every problem in the book and problems that weren't in the book.

"My daughter was born with a severe tongue tie. And within the first 12 hours, bit me until I bled.

"She had to have two frenectomies, because the first one didn't loosen her tongue enough. She had difficulties gaining weight at first because of it.

"It gets worse from there. The bras I had purchased weren't big enough and caused indescribable pain. I got mastitis. The pump gave me a blister. I had weird milk blebs (nipple blisters) that took me over a week to figure out.

"One side stopped producing, because the pump made me so depressed. I got thrush. At one point the nursing routine would take 60 full minutes. It was awful.

"So many people around me would tell me that it wasn't important, so I should just use formula.

"It got better after the first few months, then around nine months, I just stopped making milk. It was devastating, especially after I had worked so hard to make it happen."

Juliet Plante holds her 2-month-old son Grayson. (courtesy Juliet Plante)

Where's the joy I was promised?

Juliet Plante, 39, lives in West Hills. Her baby was born in Nov. 2018 and she's currently breastfeeding exclusively. So far, she says it's the hardest thing ever.

"We have introduced a bottle (like when we went to a Rams game) for convenience, but 99 percent of the time he's on the breast. It was always our plan to breastfeed for at least six months, but some days I wonder if we'll make it that long.

"I had a clogged milk duct and the beginnings of mastitis at two weeks in. It added a new challenge and was so painful - maybe even more painful than contractions. Hot compresses, hot showers, constant fluids and nursing through the pain.

"My doctor said I was doing everything right and wanted to avoid giving me antibiotics, so home remedies continued and made every feeding arduous, painful and miserable.

"Where was the joy everyone told you about? It was not in this process.

"An in-law's friend told me that after six weeks it gets easier. This is my sixth week and it does feel easier, but that could be because I've healed from the clogged ducts and mastitis. I felt getting over that was a triumph. Now I've got "cradle wrist" from repetitive motion holding the baby during feedings.

"No one ever talked about how hard breastfeeding would be. And frankly, I'm so shocked by my own lack of knowledge about it - and I thought I was educated!"

Not all help feels like help

Anne Tittle, 43, is the mother of teenage twins from Hawthorne who breastfed and pumped for the first four months. She found breastfeeding difficult.

"I had a lactation consultant come to my house. She was wonderful and encouraging. A few weeks later, I went to a drop-in breastfeeding clinic, and the consultant made me feel terrible, inadequate and stupid. I felt so guilty and ashamed that I wasn't making enough milk for my twins."

"One of my favorite parts of early motherhood"

Shannon Shields, 46, of Redlands breastfed until her kids were toddlers. She got help from lactation consultants at the hospital and local La Leche League meetings. Still, breastfeeding was hard.

"Once we'd both figured out how to do it, it was wonderful. It was much easier with my second child.

"I loved the time with my children. I loved how it recharged both of us. And I felt really proud thinking that I'd provided their only food for their first six months of life.

"My kids are 12 and 8 now. I still have really vivid memories of nursing them.

"It is not a feeling I can easily describe, but it is was one of my favorite parts of early motherhood."

"They look at me like I was less than"

Esther Siordia, 26, of Los Angeles calls breastfeeding the hardest thing she's ever done, even with home visits from lactation professionals. Her daughter was born in Feb. 2018.

"I planned on breastfeeding, but my daughter was born premature with a birth defect that affected her intestines. She wasn't able to eat until the defect was corrected and her intestines 'restarted.'

"For the first 2 weeks after she was born, I pumped milk. When she was able to eat, she was too little to latch on.

"With the defect, breast milk would be easier to digest. So, I kept pumping.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever done. I was on the same demanding schedule as a mother who breastfed, with all the cleaning, sanitizing that came with bottle feeding.

"My boobs hurt so bad. And getting into a rhythm and schedule was so hard. Since I was still caring for a newborn, it was hard to take 30 minutes every couple hours to pump.

"After she got a little bigger, I tried to breastfeed, with the guidance of a lactation consultant but my daughter wasn't interested. So many other mothers would ask why I wasn't breastfeeding, think her bottles had formula. They look at me like I was less than because my child wasn't feeding directly from me. Those people affected me a lot."

Marisol Garcia doesn't care that people are judgmental about breastfeeding her baby. (courtesy Marisol Garcia) (Courtesy Marisol Garcia)

Still breastfeeding

Marisol Garcia of Boyle Heights has had ups and downs with breastfeeding her baby, born in June 2017.

"I planned to breastfeed for a year, but ended up going longer after I noticed my baby hardly ever got sick compared to other kids. My bond with him grew every time I fed and it was beautiful.

"When I went past my first year of breastfeeding, if people asked how long I breastfed and I replied with "still breastfeeding" their reaction was always somewhat negative and surprised. I continued because it does not matter to me what people think, what matters is that my baby is healthy and strong and I want to think that part of it is due to breastfeeding."

Double-pumping while driving a '67 Mustang stick shift

Business owner Bernadette Rivero breastfed 4 children. Rivero, of Marina del Rey, says she had easy and hard times with it, particularly when she felt sad doing it. It turns out she experienced Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex.

"I'm an outlier — a Latina business owner who sets her own hours (albeit working 24/7 some days), which is entirely the reason I was able to breastfeed four kids. I don't think I could have done that while working anywhere else, as American work culture doesn't make it easy or practical.

"Even so, I've breastfed in some odd places: Double-pumping while driving a stick shift '67 Mustang down the 405 (Difficulty level: VERY HARD); pumping at the Vatican (Relatively easy); pumping in the back of a conference ballroom filled with a few thousand women in Chicago (easy); nursing a baby on a ferry crossing the Great Lakes; nursing on the back of a horse-drawn carriage; pumping under the table of the rehearsal space of a theater in Hollywood where I was working — you name it."

Pumping in the ICU while caring for her mom

Leila Danesh lives in Riverside. The 33-year-old gave birth to a son in Oct. 2017. She's still breastfeeding.

"We had to start supplementing with formula about two months in. We didn't have much of a choice because my mom was in the hospital and I just couldn't manage pumping and nursing and staying with her all at once.

"I felt pretty guilty about it, but it's what we had to do. I would nurse when I got home from the hospital. Sometimes, I would ask my husband to bring the baby to the hospital parking lot just so I could nurse. It was so painful if I hadn't nursed for a while and things got engorged!

"I remember walking in to see the lactation consultant a couple of days after giving birth, and the first words out of her mouth were 'all right, let's see what he's done to your nipples.'

"And I hated pumping. Hated it. Probably because I was pumping in the ICU while with my mom.

"The lady next to us was dying, and I was scared, and feeling awful, and feeling torn apart. My mom was here, very sick, while my new baby was home, and both needed me so much. It was a traumatic experience that I couldn't shake every time I tried to pump.

"Baby still nurses at night and though I would love to wean him at this point, I also secretly love nursing him and being his comfort."

A version of this story was on the radio. Listen to it on KPCC's Take Two.