Nursing your newborn should be “natural” (=easy), right? Not for the majority of mothers because, like most life skills, instruction and/or practice is necessary. Consider a baby learning to talk or walk; as natural as it is, there is a steep learning curve that takes time and is made easier with support and encouragement. However with feeding a newborn, there is an urgency to get it right fast for obvious reasons; second only to anxiety about the baby getting enough to eat being pain in what is one of the most sensitive areas of your body. Nursing our son was a very high priority for me when he was born but I was frightened by the experience of other new mothers I spoke to who experienced extremely painful nipples, even to the point of bleeding. So I started my research, and found hope.
Although that first latch was quite a shock, in the end I did not have sore nipples. The result of my research (published and from lactation consultants) is what I think saved me and may help others: I call it the “4 L’s” –
Latch: this is probably the most important thing. I couldn’t believe the difference when a nurse at the hospital adjusted the baby (note, this was after the lactation consultant had already helped me get started- also see the fourth L, below). The nipple should be DEEP in the throat. There is no sucking on the nipple itself, just the areola around the nipple. When the baby’s mouth opens, I was instructed to put it in as far as possible and was amazed at the difference. Lots of pillows to hold the baby up to the breast, especially when they are so small, also facilitates good latch.
Let the nipple dry: I walked around the house for weeks with my breasts exposed so that they could stay dry. I imagine this might be easier in arid Denver. Sunshine is great if you have an opportunity to sun topless. Just make sure your nipples aren’t sitting in a wet bra. Reserve absorbent nipple pads for going out ONLY, and change them often. Absolutely do not sleep in the pads. I slept on a towel because I was dripping all of the time. If you have terrible pain, it may be because you have a yeast or bacterial infection- I would talk to a professional about this (see below).
Lanolin: This is an age-old remedy for dry skin. I didn’t get cracked nipples at all (many complain of this) maybe because I was religious about applying it (I used Lasinoh brand) after every feeding. Some mothers use the milk itself to moisturize, but remember that milk is still mostly water, so you don’t want them wet for any extended period (see above).
La Leche League (i.e. support): I used their book as a reference (the Womanly Art of Breastfeeding), but I think a lot of problems can be solved by talking to the wonderful women at your local chapter of the LLL or from a professional post-partum doula (Nurture My Nest is a great one in Denver) or other nursing consultant. A friend of mine got a yeast infection in her breasts and neither her doctor or the post-partum nurse diagnosed it; in the end it was figured out by a doula, but sadly, it was too late and she simply wasn’t able to breastfeed after that (I’m not sure why, but maybe because the baby was just too used to the bottle by then). If one person isn’t helping you, ask someone else. Don’t suffer.
Finally, know that it is alright to unlatch the baby after (s)he’s been sucking for a long time. For me, that meant I had to unlatch him after 30 and 40 min sessions. After this period of time (s)he’s almost certainly gotten what (s)he needs nutrition-wise, and you may be able to replace your nipple with a finger for comfort sucking. It doesn’t have to be your nipple all of the time; this is what my doctor advised and it worked great, although when you don’t mind it, comfort sucking is a great way to make sure your body knows to keep making plenty of milk.
So even if nursing isn’t initially easy (it certainly wasn’t for me), I urge you to try the above before giving up. In an era of so much money and time spent on dubious products to benefit baby (such as special foods, videos, classes, etc.), doesn’t it make sense to work at one of the few things we know for sure helps their life-long health and development? It also saves money and is super-convenient. If your doctor is anxious about weight-gain and is pressuring you to supplement with formula, you may need to get a second opinion- the vast majority of babies do not need this and adding formula means that your body will adjust to produce less since the baby won’t suck as long at the breast. Our baby was in the 70th percentile for length but only the 10th for weight – that was just his body-type and he was perfectly healthy; thank goodness we had a doctor (Dr. Dean, Partners in Pediatrics) who understood this. Many new mothers also don’t know that slight weight loss immediately after birth is normal and doesn’t mean there is a problem with your milk.
In the end, if you are one of the few that truly cannot nurse for medical reasons (or you really hate doing it, even when it doesn’t hurt), feed your baby as you need to and move on- judging yourself (or others) doesn’t accomplish anything positive. Good luck!