Earlier this month, a photo of a young mom who fell asleep while breastfeeding made the rounds on social media. In it, the woman’s head rests against the back of an armchair while a nursing pillow props her young daughter up against her stomach. You can’t see the baby’s face in the photo; her fingers are clasped onto the edge of her mom’s bra as she nurses. Within the mother’s reach is a notebook with scribbled writing, a pen, and a laptop: She had apparently been studying before she fell asleep.
The photo was taken and shared online by the woman’s sister. The caption reads, in part, “These past couple of months, I’ve seen my sister bend over backward and go above and beyond for my niece as a single parent.”
Being a mother is one of the most exhausting journeys a woman can take, and for some new moms, breastfeeding, with all its physical and emotional challenges, makes it that much harder.
There’s no arguing how beneficial breastfeeding is for babies (it provides important nutrients for development and helps protect against illnesses) and for moms (nursing burns extra calories, benefits cardiovascular health, and saves money). Yet, for various reasons, most American mothers don’t breastfeed for very long.
Medical experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, recommend that babies be fed breast milk exclusively for the first six months of their life. According to data from the CDC, however, the number of babies born in 2015 who were exclusively breastfed in their first three months was less than 50 percent. That percentage dropped as they got older: Only about 25 percent of infants were exclusively breastfed through six months.
“These rates,” the CDC concluded, “suggest that mothers may not be getting the support they need from health care providers, family members, and employers to meet their breastfeeding goals.”
In order to help build that support, the United States Breastfeeding Committee declared August National Breastfeeding Month in 2011. In addition to raising awareness about policy changes that would better support families who breastfeed—such as increasing funding for the WIC breastfeeding peer counseling program—the committee is also working to elevate the racial disparity in breastfeeding rates by championing Black Breastfeeding Week (which ends August 31). Data shows that fewer Black infants (69.4 percent) are ever breastfed compared with white infants (85.9 percent).
Another way to help normalize breastfeeding is to continue demystifying what it’s really like to be a breastfeeding mom. Broadly spoke to several women about some of their unexpected—and sometimes funny—nursing experiences. As these mothers confirm, too often, women just don’t really know what to expect.
A newfound appreciation for squirting
Meghan Heffron, an accountant living in New York, says she never expected how “forcefully” her milk would shoot out of her nipples. This phenomenon called a “forceful letdown” or “overactive letdown,” occurs when a woman’s breasts are full and the internal reflex to let the milk flow is triggered, usually by her baby sucking. “[Her daughter] would start nursing and within 20 seconds she would pull away and my milk would by spraying a good ten feet across the room,” Heffron says. She adds that she’s accidentally sprayed her husband and dog a few times. “I think Thor [her dog] liked it, though.”
Sometimes, milk squirting happens in unexpected places. Julia Pelly, a North Carolina mom of two, was with her husband and three-month-old at the bank talking to a mortgage lender about buying a home. “I was still on maternity leave, so my little one was with me everywhere,” Pelly says. “My milk was still regulating, and in the middle of one of our feedings and signing of different things, he pops off and I squirted milk all over [the lender’s] desk.”
Pelly, who works as a program manager for a nonprofit, admits she was a little embarrassed. “Our mortgage lender was a young guy who clearly did not have kids, so I think he was a little stunned,” she recalls. “He did not say anything; he desperately ignored it.” Meanwhile, her husband grabbed some wipes to clean the milk and kept on talking.
It’s also possible to spray milk without even realizing it, as Emily Farmer Popek shares. The communications specialist living in New York says she was cleaning her living room one day when she discovered a fine spray of droplets on the big-screen TV. She wondered briefly if someone had sprayed cleaner and had forgotten to wipe the screen off.
“It took me so long to figure it out,” Popek says. “This just doesn’t make any sense. And then I was like, ‘Oh my god. It’s breast milk.’ And then I doubled over laughing because the TV set is fully 8 to 10 feet away from the couch where I would have been sitting nursing my baby.”
Sleep? What’s sleep?
Sleep deprivation is a common experience for mothers with infants: Babies don’t care what time of the night it is when they’re hungry. Michelle Fox, a bartender living in Georgia and mother of three, attests to this. She says she often woke up from a deep sleep to find herself being accosted by her children, who shared her bed when they were hungry.
Around the time her youngest was about nine months old, for example, her daughter figured out how to lift up her shirt and nurse by herself. “I would feel tugging, and I’m like, what’s going on,” Fox says. “I’d wake up and she’s sitting up and on my boob feeding. I figure there’s nothing I can do, so I just go back to sleep. When she was done, she’d leave me exposed, like I was nothing. Sometimes I’d feel like a dog: When the puppies go up to the mom, find the nipple and eat, and when they’re done, they just go away.”
“I thought breastfeeding was going to be this amazing bond between you and your child—which it is, don’t get me wrong,” Fox continues. “But there are also a lot of boundary issues. Sometimes I just needed ten minutes to myself.”
Dealing with uncomfortable family members
Alexis Hall is an artist living in North Carolina. Her son is now five months old. While she always knew she wanted to breastfeed, she did not anticipate how much emotional work it would involve, especially as she deals with her family’s discomfort with seeing her breastfeed.
“Being in the Black community, you don’t really see too many people breastfeeding,” Hall says. “My whole family formula-fed. They didn’t have that experience, and it’s something new to them, so they don’t really know how to react to it. Even now, I get the looks. Whenever we go out, it kind of throws them off if I pop my boob out just to feed my son.”
One way Hall tries to help make her family feel more comfortable is by making light of the practice. When she discovered how powerful her milk spray could be, she began using that as a way to “antagonize” her 16-year-old sister. “I’ll chase her around the house trying to spray milk on her because she thinks it’s so gross,” Hall says. “I laugh at it every time. If she bothers me, I’ll just reach down [to grab a breast] and she takes off running.”
When it’s time to wean
Nancy Slavin, a writer living in Oregon, had planned to nurse only as a way to feed her baby. After a difficult birth experience, however, she didn’t fight when her daughter, now nine, used breastfeeding as a means to soothe herself. Three years later, however, her daughter was still nursing, though exclusively at night.
At that point, Slavin says she was over it: “I had turned myself into a human pacifier and I was frustrated with myself and our bad habit, but the kid showed no interest in stopping.”
One day, she discovered a way to finally wean her child: It came down to a choice between the boob or makeup. Her daughter, who was taking dance classes, was interested in wearing eyeshadow for her first performance and asked her mom for permission.
“I said, ‘Well, if you think you’re old enough to wear eyeshadow, then you’re old enough to quit the boob. You’ll get to choose which one you want,’” Slavin recounts. “She chose the eyeshadow. No joke.”
“I was only slightly mortally wounded that she chose makeup over the boob, but that is who she is,” Slavin continues. “I was always glad she got to make the choice though, for her own sense of self.”