Updated: Apr 13
Having difficulty breastfeeding? You're definitely not alone.
As of 2013, more than 80% of infants were being breastfed at birth, according to the CDC. That number continues to climb higher - and is likely much higher now in 2017. But the numbers drop off dramatically once the baby reaches six months old. Difficulty breastfeeding is most likely one of the main reasons.
I suspect that as more mothers attempt to breastfeed their babies, more and more are running into issues that keep them from enjoying this time with their babies and causing frustration due to not understanding what's causing the difficulties, making it too hard to continue. If you’re having difficulty breastfeeding, the first thing I want you to realize is that you’re not alone. Many mothers are struggling with it.
You also don’t have to be a new mother to run into breastfeeding problems, because every baby is unique and every breastfeeding relationship is unique, too! You can have three very easily breastfed infants and then the fourth could turn out to be anything but easy.
One of these commonly misdiagnosed problems could be causing your breastfeeding nightmare.
As an expectant mother, we all have these wonderfully pleasant and heartwarming thoughts of soon breastfeeding our babies. Breastfeeding is something we always just assumed would come naturally, because it is an incredibly innate and instinctual thing to do, right?
But for many of us, breastfeeding doesn’t go as planned. The picture of laying our newborns on our chest and easily feeding and nurturing them can turn into frustration and even anger at ourselves once we discover how difficult breastfeeding can be.
If you’re reading this, I am right there with you. I’ve had trouble breastfeeding both of my children due to various issues. It’s been such a hard and exhausting thing for me. And quite frankly, it’s hard to see other mothers doing something so natural to them that I always dreamed I would be doing.
I think the hardest thing to come to terms with as a new mother is that breastfeeding isn’t easy at all! It’s not always something that comes naturally nor easy for everyone, and it can leave you feeling defeated, exhausted, and feeling really down on your ability to parent.
I found myself becoming upset, angry, frustrated, defeated, and - in the end - wallowing in my own self-pity. Eventually, I decided that wallowing wasn’t going to do any of us any good, and I started researching what could be causing our issues.
If you have any type of breastfeeding issues, read on for a comprehensive look at what could be the root cause.
Three Reasons You May Be Having Difficulty Breastfeeding
1. Tongue Ties and Lip Ties
Tongue and lip ties are the cause of many breastfeeding relationship issues and sometimes failed ones. They are very often overlooked or misdiagnosed, and then by the time it is diagnosed, it might be too late to salvage a breastfeeding relationship.
There’s a lot more education today than years ago, but tongue and lip tie awareness still isn’t mainstream yet. Although growing in popularity, most pediatricians are not knowledgeable on the topic, or know how to revise them properly.
That said, what are the symptoms? If you or your baby experience any of these symptoms, you might have an issue with a tongue tie or lip tie.
Symptoms of Tongue and Lip Ties:
Your baby may experience the following issues:
Latch problems including improper latch, latching on and off/falling off the breast frequently and crying, lips not flanging out while nursing
Milk coming out of the corners of the mouth when nursing/bottle feeding
A clicking sound while baby is nursing
Reflux or Gas
Gumming or chewing nipples
Poor weight gain or weight plateau
Choking or gagging while nursing or gasping for air
Unexplained crying (colic) ←tongue/lip tie is often brushed off as colic
And, subsequently, you may also have some symptoms:
Cracked, bleeding, blistered nipples
Frequent nursing that mimics cluster feeding nearly round the clock - that is caused by the baby not being able to transfer enough milk so they will nurse frequently, if not all the time
Thrush or mastitis
Low milk supply
Sometimes, you just know when there’s a problem. I knew with my son because I noticed he didn’t have a good latch that I often saw in pictures. I asked my midwife a couple times about it, and she said I would have painful nursing or blisters if it were tie related. So, I disregarded it as nothing and second guessed my own instincts that something could be wrong.
When his weight started to plateau around 4 months old, he was up most nights just crying and nothing seemed to make it better, and frequently cluster feeding (and me almost losing my sanity), I made a doctor appointment to see if it was possibly a tongue or lip tie. I didn’t have many of the common symptoms mothers may experience, but we did have plenty of the baby symptoms.
Be aware, it IS possible to have ties without any or many of the symptoms. After not having much luck or help with our local pediatrician, we found a helpful Facebook group that had plenty of educational resources, educated doctors that can help advise you in the group, and local provider lists. We found a very pleasant pediatric dentist near us and opted to have his anterior, posterior, and lip ties revised via a laser.
2. Swollen Adenoids
You may or may not have heard of them before. Adenoids are “lymph tissue that sit in your upper airway between your nose and back of your throat behind the tonsils.” (Source) This is something you probably won’t even notice until you’re a mother with a newborn that has swollen adenoids - or you or someone you know has a snoring issue. (That’s usually when people become aware of the adenoids and what they do.)
When adenoids swell, they cause problems with breathing. Breathing is critical to breastfeeding (or even bottle feeding). Babies need to be able to breathe through their nose in order to nurse successfully.
Adenoid enlargement is extremely common in children up through the age of six. If you’re like many parents, you might not even realize that your child has swollen adenoids until long past the breastfeeding period. Because of that, it’s possible that the adenoids caused the difficulty breastfeeding, but it went undiagnosed or misdiagnosed.
That’s what I went through. I personally believe that adenoid enlargement is the cause of the unsuccessful breastfeeding relationship with my son.
My son had terrible trouble nursing, and eventually we stopped. We found out when he was two that he had adenoids so enlarged they blocked off the entire nasal passage and he couldn't breathe out of his nose. He recently had surgery to remove them and the doctor happened to check an MRI from when he was 4 months old and saw his adenoids were huge then, so he was likely born with them being enlarged.
The thing is, adenoid enlargement is common - pediatricians know this. Yet, when mothers experience breastfeeding issues, adenoids aren’t even really considered until it’s too late, and the breastfeeding relationship is lost.
Talk to your doctor about your baby’s adenoids to see if they are enlarged, and if so, what your options are.
3. Overlooked Food Allergies
This is another thing mothers who are breastfeeding may be unaware of: food allergies. If your baby is allergic to some of the foods you are eating while breastfeeding, it could cause issues that make you both want to stop or could make it impossible to continue.
According to an article published by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, here are some of the signs that a breastfed baby may have food allergies:
That same article lists some of the foods that can cause allergies. Dairy, eggs, nuts, peanuts, soy, and wheat are all of the list, but there may be others. There are some external signs to look out for, also, such as long period of crying after breastfeeding, red or itchy eyes, or obvious discomfort (Source).
Just think about all of the possible foods that cause allergies in children and adults. Infants can have the same allergies, and the way the allergies affect them could be very similar. So it’s no surprise that allergies could cause difficulty breastfeeding, but still go un-diagnosed.
If you’re regularly breastfeeding, but your baby is experiencing some of the issues above without explanation, don’t panic, but you need to talk about what’s going on with your doctor or a lactation specialist.
Breastfeeding is supposed to be a time of bonding and nurturing, but too often difficulty with breastfeeding becomes a source of anxiety both for the baby and mother. Unfortunately, problems that cause difficulty breastfeeding often go un-diagnosed. The reason is probably that many symptoms are linked to other issues that don’t have to do with breastfeeding at all.
The best advice I can give you is to know your baby and know yourself. Like I did, you may have to use your intuition and seek out advice from multiple places rather than just relying on one doctor or source. If breastfeeding is important to you, keep digging until you figure out what is going on. There are so many more resources and support groups available today than there was even as little as 10 years ago.
Lastly, don’t feel badly about yourself or feel alone! You’re not a failure if you have difficulty breastfeeding and life will continue to go on. The best thing you can do for yourself and your baby is to research, revisit, and most of all: relax. Once you find out the root cause of the difficulty, you’ll be in a better position to solve it for you and your baby.