Learn the BasicsPain

Lie #3: Breastfeeding is Supposed to Hurt

(Lie #2: Pacifiers are Bad.)

The biggest whopper out there right now is that “breastfeeding hurts.”  And, I am probably one of the few people out there saying “if it hurts, something is wrong.” 

Now, don’t get me wrong. I fully acknowledge that most women experience some level of pain when breastfeeding.  Whenever you learn something new, there will be a margin of error.  When it comes to a tiny nipple and a tiny baby mouth, that margin of error is pretty small.

Here is one of my greatest heartaches:

You are a brand new mother with a two day old baby. You have diligently been putting your baby to breast whenever he seems hungry. For the first 24 hours, it was a little uncomfortable, but mostly, breastfeeding felt ok.  At 36 hours, it became really tender and you started to notice little blisters on the face of your nipples.  You are doing your very best to get a “deep latch,” but after 48 hours of having your baby suck on your nipples, it is really really painful. You have a crack in one nipple, the other is bleeding a little.  When you latch your baby on, you are convinced that kid has teeth.  You aren’t sure how much longer you can tolerate this.  You have a professional- a nurse, a doctor, a La Leche Leader, an IBCLC, look at your latch.  You tell them it really really hurts.  They lean in, peek at the latch and say.

“The latch looks fine. Breastfeeding just hurts. Your nipples will toughen up.”


At this moment you will proceed to lose your shit.  Basically, this person who was supposed to save you from this pain just said “sucks to be you. It will probably get better eventually.”  You are faced with days? Weeks? Months? of searing pain with no end in sight!  You will also probably not continue to seek help for your pain because you were told it was normal, i.e., there is nothing anyone can do to help you.

Now, tell me. In what other field of healthcare do we say “yeah, it is painful. That’s too bad for you.”  None!  In fact, nurses are indoctrinated with the philosophy that pain must be rated on a scale of 0-10 and must be kept below a 3 at all times. Even during childbirth, a process that is  inherently painful, nurses and anesthesiologists peddle epidurals like infomercial hosts. But, apparently, nipple pain doesn’t count as actual pain. Whether your nipple pain is a 2 or a 10, you will be encouraged to use lanolin.

Ah, lanolin.  The Chapstick of nipples.  Now, lanolin is great for soothing tender, sore or somewhat chaffed nipples, just like Chapstick is great for chapped lips.  But, I don’t expect Chapstick to heal my cracked bleeding lips. Do you?  So, why are we expecting lanolin to heal cracked bleeding nipples??  It isn’t miracle cream. It is just lanolin.

Balanced Breastfeeding Nipple Cream favorites 

Which brings me back to my original point. Here is what I believe to be the truth:

Oftentimes, learning to breastfeeding is uncomfortable.
But, if breastfeeding hurts, something is wrong. 

Now, hold up. Finish reading before you attack me with your comments about how breastfeeding was painful for you.  I know about the pain associated with breastfeeding. Trust me. I have seen some nipple damage that you never ever want to see.  I have also worked with women who have extremely sensitive nipples who felt pain throughout a majority of their breastfeeding relationship.  I have worked with women who have a condition called Raynaud’s Syndrome and lack blood flow to their nipples and experience searing, needle-like nipple pain.

So, understand I am not denying that breastfeeding is often very very painful. I am sending you the message that

Pain is not normal. 


If you feel pain, seek help.  If that “help” tells you to suck it up because pain is normal, seek more help. If that help tells you pain is just a part of breastfeeding, seek more help.

Don’t accept “sucks to be you” as your answer. 

If you were right here with me in my office, here is what I would do. I would say, “go ahead, latch your baby on.”  Then, I would say “how does that feel? Does it pinch or does it tug? Would you call that feeling painful?”

If you say it feels like a tug or nothing at all, great. I don’t even care what the latch looks like. If it is comfortable (and it is effective), then it is right, regardless of how the latch looks.

I’ll have you follow nipple care basics.

If you say it is tender, pinchy or painful, we will work on the latch and adjust it until it feels better. Then I will make sure you can do it on your own without my help.

I’ll have you follow nipple care for the sore, but intact nipples.

If no matter what we do, we can’t make the latch feel ok, it might be because of a number of factors, but most likely, your nipples just need time to really heal.

I’ll have you follow the nipple care instructions for cracked, sore nipples and we will consider the option to temporarily pump and bottle-feed to give your nipples the opportunity to do some healing.

At this visit, I am also going to rule out a couple of other pesky things that may be causing you serious pain such as yeast overgrowth, bacterial infection, or milk blisters. I’ll also check and make sure there isn’t something funky up with your baby’s mouth that is doing all the damage.

Bottom line, you need someone with you for the long haul who is promising that things will get better. You need to know there is hope.  It is unfair and unrealistic to expect women to endure chronic nipple pain for 6 months, 12 months or longer.  I don’t care how healthy breastfeeding is for your baby. Living with chronic pain isn’t healthy for anyone.