Getting real about breastfeeding: The struggles, possible solutions and alternatives

A young woman breastfeeding her baby on the sofa at home.

From the time you become pregnant to when you welcome your baby into the world, your body does some pretty incredible things. It all starts with a sperm cell and an egg, and it ends with a living, breathing baby, complete with developed organs, unique features — and frequent needs.

In order to meet your baby's needs, your body continues to step up to the task by producing the perfect source of nutrition: breastmilk.

The benefits of breastfeeding

The benefits of breastfeeding are largely well-known. In fact, experts recommend exclusively breastfeeding for the first 6 months of a baby's life, then continuing breastfeeding along with other foods until they are at least 1 year old.

"Breastmilk meets the needs of your baby from day one, and it adapts as they grow," says Jennay Peterson, International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant at Main Line Health. "In addition to being nutritionally strong, it also boosts their immune system and lowers their risk of conditions like sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and gastrointestinal infections. On the other hand, breastfeeding your baby can lower your risk of breast cancer, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes."

Despite its benefits, breastfeeding doesn't always come easily. In fact, many new moms struggle to breastfeed, leading them to stop before they intended to and switch to formula feeding.

Roughly 60% of moms don't breastfeed for as long as they originally planned to. By 12 months old, only about 35% of babies are getting any breastmilk at all.

While formula feeding can provide your baby with excellent nutrition, you may still wish to breastfeed. Knowing what breastfeeding struggles you might encounter — and how you can overcome them — can help you reach your breastfeeding goals.

Common breastfeeding challenges

Like any major transition, breastfeeding comes with plenty of ups and downs. Those first few days and weeks might feel overwhelming, as it can take time for both you and your baby to get used to breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding may be a natural way to feed your baby, but it can come with some physical discomfort, including:

  • Sore nipples
  • Low milk supply
  • Breast engorgement (when your breasts feel full and can hurt)
  • Plugged ducts (milk ducts that don't drain like they should, causing tender and sore lumps in the breast)
  • Infections in the nipples or breast, such as a yeast infection
  • Exhaustion

Breastfeeding can also be emotionally challenging, especially as you adjust to life with a newborn.

Possible emotional hurdles include:

  • Feeling like you don't have any time for yourself
  • Sadness or depression
  • Judgment from others about your decision to breastfeed

Finally, breastfeeding can present logistical challenges, especially to mothers who work, have other children or have other responsibilities that might keep them from breastfeeding.

Logistical challenges may include:

  • Cluster feeding (when your baby feeds frequently due to a growth spurt)
  • Nursing strikes (when your baby suddenly won't breastfeed, despite doing it for months without issues)
  • Working outside the home
  • Having other responsibilities, such as other children to care for

How to overcome breastfeeding problems

While breastfeeding provides a wide range of benefits to both you and your baby, it's important to remember that it can also be difficult. Fortunately, there are ways to overcome most breastfeeding challenges, such as:

  • For sore nipples: Changing the baby's position while feeding and using olive oil, expressed breastmilk or nipple cream to soothe nipples
  • For breast fullness: Using massage, applying heat to the breast and feeding more often (or using a breast pump)
  • For low milk supply: Drinking enough fluids, getting plenty of rest and doing frequent feedings
  • For plugged milk ducts: Using gentle massage to remove the plug

Another option is bridge milk, which can be used to supplement mom's own milk when medically necessary, such as if it's not available or temporarily insufficient.

Bridge milk is a temporary solution and is not used to replace a mother's own milk. Instead, it's used in conjunction with mom's milk. Bridge milk is offered for use in cases when a mother plans to breastfeed exclusively or provide exclusive breastmilk feeds. Bridge milk is made for babies and is easy for the baby to digest.

For emotional and logistical challenges, rely on the support of others, including partners, parents, close friends or other loved ones. For instance, if you're feeling like you don't have enough time for yourself, recruit others to help with tasks like changing diapers, playing with the baby and doing the laundry.

For working moms, be open with your employer about your needs.

"If you're struggling to balance work and breastfeeding, talk to your employer about ways they can support you, like providing a private place to pump or working from home sometimes," says Peterson. "Keep in mind—federal law requires employers to give you a reasonable amount of time to express breastmilk for at least one year after you give birth."

If you find yourself struggling to breastfeed for any reason, remember that you're not alone. Prenatal breastfeeding classes, inpatient breastfeeding consultations and breastfeeding support groups can help.

Alternatives to breastfeeding

If needed, formula is a great alternative to breastfeeding. It still provides the nutrition your baby needs to develop and grow. If you decide to supplement with formula or switch to formula altogether, talk to your child's pediatrician about how much formula to feed your baby and which formula to use.

Remember—what matters is making sure your baby is fed using an approach that works for you and your family. Whether you choose to breastfeed or formula feed is not a reflection of how much you care for and love your baby.

Parenting comes with plenty of challenges, especially in those first few months. With helpful resources, plenty of patience and the right support, you'll be well on your way to a successful and loving parenting experience.

Next steps:

Learn more about Main Line Health Lactation Support Services
Discover our other breastfeeding resources
4 ways to combat pregnancy fatigue

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