Though it seems like it should be the most natural thing in the world, nursing a baby can feel like anything but. These days, when something as benign as feeding your infant is so fraught (politicized, even), it’s reassuring to hear a few wise words from women who have been there, lived that.
In honor of World Breastfeeding Awareness Week and National Breastfeeding Month, we present the good, the bad and the in-between about what it’s really like to sustain a tiny human with your own two boobs. Eight Bare Necessities staffers looked back—some many years, some to this morning—to bring you their best, most honest breastfeeding real talk. File all this knowledge under “things nobody ever tells you….”
Heather, premium brands buyer and mom of Vivian, 4, and Emma, 5 months
How long did you nurse? Four months. I would have continued if working from home was possible. Now I’m just nursing before and after work.
How did you make the decision? It’s ingrained that breast is best, so there were no other options. The minute the lactation nurse walks through the door, you’re made to feel guilty if you even want to consider formula.
What’s it like? I pumped and nursed with my first, to no set schedule, and weaned after 2.5 months. This time, I pumped mainly and nursed occasionally. I hated pumping—it’s tedious—but it’s satisfying knowing exactly how much milk your child is getting. It was tough to plan anything because life revolved around that pump. I was doing power pumps every other day the first month, which takes an hour; on top of that, I was eating and drinking lactation foods all day long.
What did nursing do to you physically and emotionally? I would get this terrible feeling of being frightened at night; a wave of anxiety would rush through me. At first I thought, I’m just hearing noises; don’t be a scaredy-cat. But it happened every night and into the morning until I pumped. One night I Googled anxiety for the first few minutes of pumping. Can you believe it’s an actual condition called Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex? It’s a glitch in the mechanism that allows milk to flow that can cause negative emotions at letdown. I wish people talked about this because I felt so alone explaining it. I also have to mention the loss of breast tissue after breastfeeding. I went from a G-cup to an E. They turn into pancakes.
Any memorable stories? The priest came while my cousin was visiting me in the hospital. There I was in a nightgown, pumping and receiving communion.
What was your nursing bra must-have? The Freya Pure Nursing T-Shirt Bra. I love that it’s a spacer bra, so it’s soft but still gives a great shape. I’ve been wearing it almost every day, and no one has noticed.
Caitlin, merchandise planner and mom of Raegan, 6 months
How long do you expect to nurse? I’m hoping until she’s one. She was exclusively breastfed until we recently introduced solids. Wouldn’t it be nice never to buy formula?
How did you make the decision? I went in with no expectations. I had heard it all, wonderful experiences to horror stories. Leading up to her birth I said, “We’re going to try. If it works, it works.”
What was the perception of breastfeeding at the time? Everyone had their own opinions and experiences: the lactation consultants, pediatricians, OBs, nurses. Those passionate experts were, at times, in conflict. I tried to take it all in, but it can drive you crazy. Ultimately, you have to go with your gut and do whatever’s best for you and baby—and what you decide works best today can change tomorrow. Let yourself be open and understanding, even with yourself. There’s no rulebook.
What has it been like? A struggle in the beginning, but we got over the hump. No one ever warned me of how excruciating milk coming in would be! Heads up, mamas, that is zero fun but, like everything else, this too shall pass.
Any memorable stories? I once pumped in a popular New York restaurant where there’s a single bathroom and no outlet! The manual pump took forever. When I finally emerged, there was a massive line outside the door. I’m pretty sure the next person to go in held their nose in case.
What’s your best advice? Don’t hesitate to use the lactation consultants. I couldn’t have done it without them. If they leave your room, don’t suffer in silence; call them back! A few days after we got home, I returned to the hospital for more lessons. They’re there to help.
What is your nursing bra must-have? At first, I lived in Cake Lingerie nursing tanks. When I started leaving the house again, I graduated to a real bra. I still love the Panache Eleanor. It’s a spacer so it’s light and perfect for summer. I like that it fits me great before and after feeding.
Tracy, assistant buyer and mom of Amanda, 22, Brian, 19 and Dylan, 16
How long did you nurse? All three for a year each. Right around that first birthday, they seemed ready to be done.
How did you make the decision? I assumed I would use formula because that’s how my mom fed me. Breastfeeding wasn’t in fashion then, but when I gave birth, there was a movement to encourage it. The nurse asked if I wanted to try, and I said, “I guess so.” I thought I’d nurse for a few days. Before I knew it, it’d been a year. Other than deciding to become a mom, it was the best decision I ever made. My motivation was to provide nutrients and immunity. Little did I know it would also simplify life. How convenient to never wash bottles, prep formula or carry food—I was the food.
What was the perception of breastfeeding at the time? It was seeing a resurgence. Some friends didn’t understand why I was such a proponent, but it can be hard to comprehend something until you experience it. You can’t just convince someone to nurse: The mother has to want to, and the baby has to be able to. It doesn’t always work out, and that’s fine.
What was it like? It was like having a superpower: When the kids were cranky or sick, I could console them. I believe it had lasting positive effects on our relationships. Yes, there were times I struggled. I experienced painful mastitis, and it meant I was restricted—if my friends were going out, my response had to be, “Sorry, I have to be here to feed the baby.” Truth is, even though it may not always have felt like it then, the time flies, and I never took those moments for granted.
What did nursing do to you physically and emotionally? Nursing has positive effects on moms, too. I was more well endowed than ever. It helped my body return to its pre-pregnancy shape more quickly. The sensation of a letdown, when your baby is ready to feed, is indescribably powerful. Like feeling your baby kick during pregnancy, your milk coming in is like magic. It’s a miracle that your body can produce the food that your baby needs to survive—a literal lifeline.
Any memorable stories? Friends and family joke that certain topics are taboo around me. Breastfeeding used to be one of them. That changed quickly! I nursed walking through Disney World. I nursed in the middle of Yankee Stadium. If my babies were hungry, I fed them. No one ever had a negative word to say about it.
Where did you get support? The What to Expect series was my bible. If the baby woke up in the night, my husband would always go get him or her. By the time I had my third, my older kids would help. They loved it because they knew it meant we would get to sit and read. My mom was a huge proponent of my decision. My sister cheered me on and, having seen how great it was for me, went on to nurse my nephews.
What’s your best advice? 1) Stick with it, even if it’s tough in the beginning. It gets better, I promise. 2) Trust your gut. If your baby is hungry, don’t worry if you just fed her. Your body will tell you when it’s time, not the clock. 3) Enjoy the process. Savor each moment of snuggle time.
What was your nursing bra must-have? Even—and maybe especially—nursing moms deserve to feel sexy. I love the Le Mystère Sexy Mama Nursing Bra. It doesn’t look or feel like a typical nursing bra. Thankfully, they’ve come a long way!
Amber, controller and mom of Houston, 2
How long did you nurse? Houston went 11 months. Then we started cow’s milk, and he was weaned at 14 months.
How did you make the decision? I knew before giving birth I wanted to try. My mom did it for the first year with her three children while working full-time and having to use a manual pump—still amazed by that—so I knew it was doable.
What was it like? The bond I felt with my son was the biggest pro. They were definitely some of the most content moments I’ve had with him. I didn’t expect to miss nursing as much as I did when it was over. The biggest con was that it could be isolating. I felt comfortable nursing in front of certain people, but pumping was something I never did around anyone and, as a full-time working mom, I had no choice. I would often end up pumping in my car in the parking lot.
What did nursing do to you physically and emotionally? The pounds came off quick. After a year, I was 10 pounds lighter than before I got pregnant. Your boobs aren’t the same, though! Emotionally, it helped keep my hormones in check. It could be that taking those pauses throughout the day was better for my emotional state then I realized at the time.
Jessica, photo retoucher and mom of Liam, 4
How long did you nurse? About a month, plus I pumped enough for another month. I stopped due to the pain. Nobody tells you it really hurts for some people. I also didn’t produce a lot of milk, despite trying everything to make it come in more.
How did you make the decision? I knew the nutrients in breastmilk were key to helping baby develop immunity. I initially looked forward to it, thinking I wanted to give him that opportunity. The benefits for us both seemed like a no-brainer. After my son was born, I got conflicting advice from different lactation nurses and groups. Don’t pump right away; pump as much as you can; eat this; don’t eat that. Despite trying to follow all the advice, I wasn’t producing enough. My son was always hungry and crying no matter what I did. He was also tongue-tied. I had no clue what that was and didn’t find out until later. I ended up using formula, and we were both much happier.
What was it like? It was painful, and I felt horrible that I wasn’t able to produce enough milk.
What’s your best advice? Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t do it. It’s a personal choice, and feeding formula is totally fine. If you can nurse without issues, more power to you, but don’t let anyone put you down for choosing not to breastfeed. It was amazing to me how much unsolicited advice I got from strangers telling me how to raise my child. Ignore it.
What was your nursing bra must-have? I preferred a bra like the Bravado Designs Body Silk Wire-Free Nursing Bra. It was comfortable to sleep in and no fuss to deal with.
Justina, product merchandising coordinator and mom of Matthew, 6, and Madeleine, 3
How long did you nurse? Three months with my son, two months with my daughter.
How did you make the decision? You read up on all this stuff during your pregnancy, and phrases like “liquid gold” stick in your mind. It’s imparted into you to want to breastfeed and provide this little person with the most your body has to offer…for at least as long as you can bear it.
What was the perception of breastfeeding at the time? “Breast is best!” Apparently, it’s every maternity wing slogan.
What was it like? I was elated every time. With my son, it was about those moments he would never remember and I would never forget. With my daughter, it was more difficult. There were latch issues from day one, which I resolved by offering both breast and formula. I pumped more—exhausting! I thought I’d breastfeed for a year, but it wasn’t in me to juggle it with going back to work. That was the saddest part, the end of an era. I’m getting emotional just thinking about it!
What did nursing do to you physically and emotionally? I felt insanely empowered. In a way, I fell in love with my body for the first time. I admired it. This body went on a journey that will forever leave me feeling stronger than I ever felt in my youth. I sustained life. That’s a sobering thought!
Any memorable stories? Matthew started crying one night. When I turned the bottle upside-down to feed him, instead of taking the cap off, I unscrewed the whole top. Needless to say, there more screaming after that. Poor baby was gasping for breath as I soaked him in an entire bottle of milk.
What’s your best advice? Read up on it a little but really, rely on instinct. You’ll know what to do. And get some great pajamas because you’re about to be living in them!
What was your nursing bra must-have? Hands down the Anita Stretch Microfiber Nursing Bra! I know many women want wire-free foam, but I disagree. With a bra that fits properly—meaning the correct size no matter how ludicrous you think it may be—you’ll never feel the underwire. Too much foam makes nursing uncomfortable for you and the baby. Ultra-thin microfiber tucks away nicely, never disrupting your flow or baby’s meal. How would you like all that stuff leaning against your face while you’re eating?!
Brandi, Bra Fit Expert and mom of Elizabeth, 12, and Rebecca, 8
How long did you nurse? My first daughter only nursed for about a month. My younger daughter nursed for a year.
What was it like? My first didn’t take to nursing at all. I was devastated. She ended up formula-fed, which worked out just as well. Anyone could give her a bottle and, when she was old enough, she could hold it by herself. My younger was exclusively breastfed. The only downside was that she refused to take a bottle, so I was the only person who could feed her.
What did nursing do to you physically and emotionally? My breasts are definitely more shallow. It forced me to watch what I ate; certain foods might make her fussy. I dropped the weight a lot faster. Emotionally, I loved that time. Every feeding was a one-on-one experience that couldn’t be rushed. As amazing as it was, nursing was exhausting. I felt like she was always hungry and I was feeding her constantly.
Any memorable stories? A lot of nursing rooms are adjacent to restrooms. At one mall, the nursing area shared a wall with those jet-propelled hand dryers. Every time someone would dry their hands, my daughter would startle and stop eating! It was funny at first but got old fast.
Where did you get support? Unfortunately, I didn’t have a ton of people to turn to for advice. I had to figure a lot out for myself. Talk to family or friends who have breastfed. If you don’t have any, ask your hospital if they know of any breastfeeding groups. Online support groups are good, but find one with a moderator. Tired, hormonal moms can be a bit snippy.
What was your nursing bra must-have? I wish I had known about Bare Necessities! I was in a very ill-fitting nursing bra from a well-known maternity store. It was awful, and I would only wear it if I had to leave the house. I think the most versatile bras have many hook-and-eye closures. Cake Lingerie offers six columns! These should fit snugly on the middle set of hooks early in pregnancy. As your ribcage expands, you’ll be able to let that bra out; as everything moves back into place after the baby is born, you’ll be able to tighten the band again for proper support.
Brooke, editor and mom of Eva, 5
How long did you nurse? We made it 11 months, when she dropped me like a bad habit. My goal was a year, so I call that a win.
How did you make the decision? I wanted to make a go of breastfeeding, but if it didn’t work out, I wasn’t going to beat myself up over it. (At least, that’s what I told myself.) Luckily, she took to it right away, which is still not to say it was easy. We tried every hold and latch and probably invented a few.
What was the perception of breastfeeding at the time? Eva was born in the organic, Earth Mama era. When my supply dipped around seven months, we started supplementing with formula—that’s what I was raised on, and I arguably turned out okay, so I felt pretty good about the combo. My friend Virginia Sole-Smith is writing a book called The Eating Instinct on this topic, and the philosophy she subscribes to is this: “Fed is best.”
What was it like? Hardest, best thing I’ve done. Nursing was a full-time job in addition to my actual full-time job, and it’s all on you. It felt nonstop, like I was always running a marathon. I was ravenously hungry and thirsty. She was literally draining the energy out of me! At a few months old, she started sleeping through the night but I was still up because my confused, engorged boobs were on fire. I just sat in the bathroom and cried. I had a love-hate relationship with the pump, I had plugged ducts, I bled. Despite how this all sounds, I enjoyed it. We were good at it, it was beautiful, it was a wonder my 30Cs could sustain her. But it was definitely a factor in my being one-and-done. I can’t imagine doing that for another year, and I also couldn’t imagine doing anything differently.
What did it do to you physically and emotionally? My boobs never looked bigger or better. At the end, though, they were smaller and softer. It was all-consuming: Was I doing it right? Was she getting enough? How could I produce more? The last thing I needed to be doing in my precious little free time was baking lactation cookies and trying to source Mother’s Milk Tea, but that’s what I did. It made me ruthlessly goal-oriented.
Any memorable stories? I’ve pumped in the passenger seat of a car driving slowly through Times Square. When weaning, I stuffed cabbage leaves in my bra to soothe the soreness. (It’s a thing.) Warm, wilting cabbage is rarely a good look. Or scent.
Where did you get support? Google at 4 AM, mostly. Skip the childbirth class; take a lactation class!
What was your nursing bra must-have? With so many size fluctuations, the last thing I wanted to deal with was figuring out bra size—this was before I knew the Bra Fit Experts could do it for me! So stretchy size smalls, like the Bravado Designs Ballet Wire-Free Nursing Bra, did the trick.