Breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to ensure your baby's health and survival according to the World Health Organization. But globally, only 40 percent of infants under 6 months of age are exclusively breastfed — and for myriad reasons, many of which have to do with breastfeeding complications. Of course, some women do not breastfeed by choice and others cannot breastfeed due to health complications that make it impossible or unsafe, but many other women start breastfeeding and don't continue because there are unanticipated hurdles along the journey.
Breastfeeding exclusively for six months, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, can be invaluable for the health of both you and your child. Breast milk contains antibodies that protect infants from illnesses and child mortality according to the WHO. Likewise, breastfed children perform better on intelligence tests later in life, and they have a reduced risk of developing obesity and Type 2 diabetes. The act of breastfeeding can even prove beneficial for mothers by reducing their risk of breast and cervical cancer, Type 2 diabetes and postpartum depression as well. But despite the common benefits for mothers and their babies, women have different experiences with breastfeeding.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 74 percent of new moms start out breastfeeding their babies, but by the 6-month mark, only 14 percent are still nursing exclusively. Because a lot of women will face challenges along the way, here are 10 breastfeeding problems you might encounter at every stage, as well as some advice on how to handle them.
Be prepared and make better-informed decisions about your next steps.
During the first few days postpartum
1. A lack of immediate skin-to-skin contact
If you don't get to experience skin-to-skin contact or are not able to nurse immediately following birth (if you had a C-section or a complicated birth, for example), you may face more complications with breastfeeding — but that doesn't mean you won't be able to do it. The study, "Uninterrupted Skin-to-Skin Contact Immediately After Birth," shows that skin-to-skin contact immediately after birth increases breastfeeding rates and duration according to Medscape.
2. Breast pain
According to the study, "Duration of Breastfeeding After Early Initiation and Frequent Feeding," 44 percent of women are worried about pain during breastfeeding three days into the postpartum period.
The reality is that you may experience severe breast engorgement; the fullness and hardness of your breasts may not decrease by the end of a feeding; your nipples may crack; you may bleed; you may get blisters and bruises; and you may get blocked milk ducts, which can be painful and lead to inflamed breast tissue. These problems are common, and it's important that you consult with your doctor about any indications of the aforementioned complications so you can treat the symptoms and carry on breastfeeding as comfortably as possible.
3. Breast infections
You may develop infections like mastitis, which is characterized by soreness or a lump in the breast with symptoms like nausea, vomiting and breast discharge. While you may develop these infections at any point during your breastfeeding journey, your body is extra vulnerable when you're first getting started out and learning how to feed your baby. This infection is common, with more than 200,000 cases in the U.S. each year. Treatments include self-care (keeping up with personal hygiene and avoiding tight clothing that could irritate your breasts), some over-the-counter anti-inflammatory and pain medications and antibiotics.
4. Latching problems
More than half of women are worried about their baby's latch within the first three days of breastfeeding, according to the aforementioned study. Another Pediatrics journal survey of 1,300 nursing women found that 54 percent of mothers cited difficulties with regard to latching as the reason they actually stopped breastfeeding during the first month.
Maybe your baby is too fussy or too sleepy, maybe your nipples are large or inverted, maybe your baby has a tongue-tie (ankyloglossia) or a cleft lip — whatever the case, talk to your doctor about how to solve these common latching problems. They may recommend you try squeezing your breasts during suckling or that you try using a pump.
During the first few weeks postpartum
5. Low milk supply
For some women, it may take a little bit longer for their milk to come in. Babies can lose up to 7 percent of their weight during this time — if that number climbs to 10 percent, it may become a concern. Mothers are encouraged to nurse at least eight times per day for up to 30 minutes during this period according to a study on nutrition during lactation published in the National Academies Press.
6. Low milk intake
After a few days, some signs that your baby is not ingesting enough milk include if your baby has fewer than six wet diapers and four stools per day, dark yellow or red-specked urine and dark stool (as opposed to yellow and loose stool) according to Healthy Children. Another strong sign that your baby isn't getting enough milk is inadequate weight gain. If your baby hasn't started gaining at least 5 to 7 ounces per week since your milk came in, it may be cause for concern according to Healthy Children.
7. Sheer exhaustion
Maybe you feel like your baby is constantly nursing — and that may be the case since your baby is going through their first growth spurt. Studies show that, if you have a partner, their support is key. In fact, 74 percent of babies whose fathers attended an early breastfeeding-intervention class were breastfeeding compared to just 41 percent of babies whose fathers didn't attend a class, according to the study, "Fathers' Experiences of Supporting Breastfeeding: Challenges for Breastfeeding Promotion and Education."
After a few months postpartum
8. Too-long or too-short feeds
According to Healthy Children, if your baby's nursing sessions are consistently briefer than about 10 minutes during the first few months of breastfeeding, they may not be getting enough milk. Likewise, if your baby consistently nurses for almost an hour, it may mean that your baby isn't getting enough milk due to ineffective suckling or low milk production. Talk with your doctor to make sure you're not dealing with an issue like clogged milk ducts or to see if there's something you can be doing to help your baby feed more efficiently.
9. Feelings of disconnection
The 6-month mark is the minimum age you can start introducing your baby to solid foods according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, though women are encouraged to breastfeed for at least a year. During this time, as your baby starts to wean off nursing, you, like many women, may start to feel a sense of loss. Know that this is normal, and you're not alone in this feeling.
The majority of new mothers in the United States also rejoin the workforce (if they've taken maternity leave) before their baby is a year old, sometimes returning to work just six to eight weeks after giving birth. Women whose maternity leave is less than six weeks are four times as likely to stop nursing than women who don't return to work. This period can cause feelings of disconnection and separation anxiety for new mothers. Reach out to new parent resource groups, lean on family and friends for support and talk to your doctors to discuss your options if your anxiety persists or develops into depression.
After the first year postpartum
While breastfeeding in public spaces is now finally legal in all 50 states (following long-awaited legislation in Utah and Idaho), many nursing mothers are still suppressed and discouraged from breastfeeding — especially as babies grow older. According to research from the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, 6 in 10 mothers of children up to 5 years old say they've been criticized about their parenting decisions. Of those women, 39 percent said they were shamed for their choices in breastfeeding or bottle-feeding their children. To make matters worse, less than half of society thinks that women should even have the right to breastfeed in public.
Women are often given unsolicited and, perhaps worse, inconsistent advice on how, where and for how long they should nurse their babies. The truth is that there's no one best way to do it, as all women's experiences are unique to them. Stay confident in your breastfeeding decisions and try to ignore all the white noise.
A version of this post previously appeared on Fairygodboss, the largest career community that helps women get the inside scoop on pay, corporate culture, benefits and work flexibility. Founded in 2015, Fairygodboss offers company ratings, job listings, discussion boards and career advice.