When breastfeeding sucks: fixing common problems

 Photo: Getty Images

You have seen all the beautiful photos of mums and babies gazing into each others' eyes as the babies fill up on milk and love, the 'brelfies' of proud mamas enjoying this precious relationship with their little ones, and the celebrity mothers glamorously multi-tasking or being pampered with a baby on the breast and you want nothing more than to enjoy the same loving experience. You wonder, wistfully, why can't it be like that for us too?

Learning to breastfeed so it becomes natural and easy can take time, just like learning a dance with an inexperienced partner who also needs to learn the steps (coordinating sucking, swallowing and breathing). Soon, breastfeeding is mostly a sweet interlude in your days and nights, as you snuggle together and drink in that sweet baby breath and stroke his fine skin as he fills up on your mama milk.

But, at the risk of sounding like a Debbie Downer, even when breastfeeding is going pretty smoothly, there are a few things that suck, big time.

Tight breasts

If your boobs are full and uncomfortable, even after you have fed your baby, try breaking out the cabbage: cool, washed cabbage leaves applied to tight tender breasts can work wonders. Or try filling a disposable nappy with water and pop it in the freezer. When it's cool, wrap it over your breasts for instant relief.

Leaky boobs

The wet tee-shirt look probably isn't what you're going for, and having one boob dribble down your belly as you feed from the other isn't fun either. If breast pads don't do the trick, try wearing 'milk savers' (yes, these are an actual thing) either between feeds or on the breast you aren't feeding from. It will catch the dripping milk and you can still give it to your baby if it's refrigerated and stored safely.    


Your baby gets distracted and turns his head to look around, but he still has your nipple in his mouth and he clamps down so it doesn't fall out. Ouch! To help your baby focus on the boob and feed without checking out the scenery, try wearing some colorful baby-safe beads that he can play with as he feeds, such as Boobie Beads.


The nipple tweaker 

Fiddling with the other side while breastfeeding is actually a biological thing older babies do to encourage a faster let down. Others will pinch your skin as they feed, and this seems to be a natural way to provide some sensory stimulation for little fingers. If it's driving you bonkers, see 'niplash' (above) and wear a safe, tactile necklace, or try and hold your baby's hand and massage his fingers as you feed. 

Dead arm

You're stuck, sitting while feeding your baby, and your arm goes numb. This may be due to pressure as you hold your baby with a tightly bent wrist or an unusual posture while breastfeeding. It can also be a symptom of carpal tunnel syndrome - this can also happen in women who aren't breastfeeding.

To fix it, try changing position as you breastfeed: use a natural hold that doesn't keep your wrist bent, try lying down to feed sometimes, or support your arm on a pillow – experiment with different shaped pillows or try a nursing pillow before you spend the money on something expensive that may not suit you and your baby (after all, we all have different sized breasts and different length torsos).

If you find yourself waking at night with a numb arm, try drinking some water at each feed – numb arms can also be a sign of dehydration.

Second-guessing milk supply

There probably isn't a breastfeeding mum who hasn't been asked, "Are you sure you have enough milk?" It's enough to sow the seeds of doubt that you could be starving your precious child. Relax: if your baby is exclusively breastfed (no other foods or fluids are given), you can be confident that she is getting enough milk if:

  • she is gaining weight (an average of 150 grams a week)
  • if she has a growing length and head circumference
  • if she has at least six to eight pale (dark urine is a sign of dehydration) wet (cloth) nappies, or at least five full/heavy disposable ones every day (scarce amounts of concentrated urine mean your baby does need more breast milk)
  • if she passes a soft yellow stool at least once a day (after the first six to eight weeks, some breastfed babies will only poo every few days – as long as your baby is otherwise thriving, this is normal for a breastfed baby).

If you have any doubts about supply and want some quick tips to boost it, download my free ebook Making More Mummy Milk, Naturally.

Biting the boob

Your dear baby has brand new teeth, his gums are tender and biting down feels good … for him! It's damn painful for you though, and scary too, as you anticipate each feed after the first sharp nip.

Offering your teething baby something cool to chew on to soothe his gums before feeds can encourage him to feed 'gently'. He can't actively suck and bite at the same time so keep an eye on him and as his sucking slows or he seems to be finishing, remove him from the breast before he chomps down.

If he clamps his teeth as he falls asleep and starts sliding off the boob, try pushing him closer – his nose will be blocked against your breast so he will have to open his mouth to breathe, and he will release your nipple.

Feeling all touched out

Cuddling, carrying, rocking and feeding a baby, whether you are breastfeeding or not, can have you feeling as though you just want to scream "Don't touch me!" You can feel irritated and overwhelmed. Then you probably feel guilty for being annoyed at your baby, your partner or other kids.

It's important to call it when you feel all 'touched out'. Partners aren't mindreaders but if you explain how you feel, they can help you take a break, whatever that means for you – from a peaceful shower to a hot cuppa or even a break outside the house. At least they will understand when you recoil from their attempts to snuggle up.

If you don't have a partner at home, call a friend, reach out and ask for help. Often just being able to talk it through without feeling like a bad mummy will be enough for you to calm down and put that baby back on the boob.

Pinky McKay is an Internationally Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and best-selling author of 'Parenting by Heart' and 'Sleeping Like a Baby' and the creator of Boobie Bikkies, all natural and organic cookies to support a healthy breastmilk supply.