Breastfeeding isn’t always as serene as it appears in photos. It can also be incredibly uncomfortable at first, from both a sensory standpoint (I equated the feeling of my son learning to latch to mini-shark bites!), as well as a positional one. Let’s address both aspects of the experience here.
From a sensory standpoint, it’s uncomfortable because the nerve endings on our breasts don’t know how to process the new sensation of latching. New sensations in our body are often interpreted by our brains as pain, essentially as a survival/safety mechanism—not because damage is necessarily being done. This is an important and somewhat reassuring thing to know. Pain doesn’t mean danger. It is mostly our body’s way of telling us that something is new/different and we better pay attention. It makes sense that our body would send an alert for us to increase our levels of attention and focus as we learn to feed our newborn.
It can take the body anywhere from a few days to two to three months for the nerve endings on the nipple to become “desensitized.” So when other moms offer the encouragement of, “Hang in there, it gets better,” it truly does…with patience and experience.
Getting into an optimal position while breastfeeding can also take some time. I highly recommend getting a breastfeeding pillow that is made of firm foam, rather than the soft cotton-filled nursing pillows that just squish right down when the baby wiggles or is in a certain position for any length of time. When your nursing pillow squishes down, it puts your body into highly uncomfortable twisted, heavily forward positions that can be very difficult to maintain or adjust during a 20-40 minute feeding session.
I also recommend stretching. Regardless of what position you nurse in, your shoulders and mid-back are likely to be affected. Here are three great breastfeeding stretches to reduce discomfort:
Doorway pec stretch
Make your arms at a 90 degree angle to your shoulders like a cactus. Then, place your palms on either side of a doorway and lean slightly forward. This stretches your pec muscle, which, when tight, contributes to rounded shoulders and neck pain. I recommend holding the stretch for one minute
The mid-back certainly feels it with nursing.* Lie on your side, with your hips and shoulders stacked on each other. Keeping your hips and legs still rotate your top arm back behind you, like a book opening. Follow your moving hand with your eyes (so that your head moves too). This will get your ribs and mid-back moving. Even just one minute on each side is beneficial.
Scapular retractions, also known as the shoulder blade squeeze
With so much care-taking for a newborn being forward leaning, we need the muscles that oppose those movements to stay in balance with the ones constantly working in the front of our bodies. So, essentially all you have to do is pretend you are squeezing a pencil between your shoulder blades. I recommend doing a minute of these throughout the day.
So, that’s literally just four minutes of movement that can really help relieve muscle tension from breastfeeding.
Additionally, I always recommend an in-home lactation consultant, physical therapist, or experienced nursing mother come over to your house to watch your breastfeeding positioning a few times; it will change as the baby grows and you don’t want to subconsciously slip into non-ideal habits.
*Please note that if you are bottle-feeding your baby and not breastfeeding, these stretches and movements will still be beneficial. Holding a baby in general, especially for what ends up often being hours throughout the day, is a strain on the body!
Monika Patel, DPT, CSCS has a passion for empowering women to prepare mentally and physically for a safe, well-balanced journey into motherhood. She has applied her knowledge toward preventive medicine and established Train4Birth, an affordable online education and beneficial movement course with a built-in accountability and support feature. She is also the mother of a truck-loving toddler and couldn’t be happier digging with him in the backyard.
P.S: Want to share these easy stretches with your friends or other new parents? We have an easily shareable version of this on our Instagram @majorcaredoulas.