The Things Nobody Tells You About Breastfeeding

The Things Nobody Tells You About Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding isn’t as simple as “baby plus nipple”. It can create a lot of unexpected biological quirks and emotional reactions, leaving many new parents blindsided. Here are some common breastfeeding experiences you may not have heard about, compiled by new mums and women’s health experts.

Illustration: Tina Mailhot-Roberge

Breastfeeding may not be something that everyone likes to talk about, but it’s a pretty essential part of life (you know, that thing we like to “hack” around here). Unfortunately, since it can sometimes be perceived as taboo, there are a lot of things you might not be aware of — and knowing them ahead of time can help you prepare. Here’s what you need to know.

It Burns Calories

Experts estimate that it takes about 500 calories to make the 700mL to 900mL of breast milk that the average mum makes each day. That’s the caloric equivalent of a sizeable brownie (or, if you’re eating healthier, about 20 medium carrots). Burning anywhere between 200 and 500 extra calories for milk production each day is a typical range.

Breastfeeding alone usually isn’t enough to strip leftover pregnancy weight, but along with exercise and a healthy diet, the extra calories burned do add up.

A Nursing Mum’s Nipples Can Hurt Severely

Breastfeeding might look easy, but it can be quite painful for the first few weeks or months. Getting a baby to latch onto a breast at all, let alone correctly, can take time, and those 8-12 feeding sessions a day can leave a woman’s nipples feeling raw and sore. The discomfort can range from slight tenderness to cracked and bleeding skin. Combine that pain with the tedium and exhaustion of 8-12 feeding sessions per day for a newborn, and you can start to understand the tough job that a nursing mum has.

Most women find that their breasts toughen up in about two weeks, but it’s important to get a baby to latch on correctly and contact a healthcare provider if the pain persists, especially between feedings.

Both Partners Might Sexualise It

Although a nursing woman’s breasts take on a very different role as nutritional providers for a new baby, things may not have changed much for her partner. Chances are that a partner has a special fondness for those breasts, and seeing them — even with a baby attached to them — is still a turn-on. If it’s weird for you, feel free to tell your partner not to watch. But, if not, you might welcome the company and the attention during feeding sessions.

Nursing mothers may get turned on too. Sexual arousal during breastfeeding is a common and confusing side effect. Many women enjoy breast stimulation in their sex lives far before they ever have a baby, and erogenous zones don’t simply stop feeling good when touched.

It’s important to note that the physical arousal a woman may feel is separate from anything emotional she feels towards her baby. Again, it’s incredibly common, despite it being a taboo subject for obvious reasons.

Breastfeeding Might Cause Uterine Cramps

A baby’s sucking triggers the release of the hormones oxytocin and prolactin, and oxytocin creates uterine contractions. Although uncomfortable, these cramps (also called “afterpains”) are necessary to squeeze the uterus back to its pre-birth size.

Bigger Breasts Don’t Equal More Milk Production

Milk glands are what matter when it comes to milk production, not breast size (which is mostly fatty tissue). A woman with an A-cup can make the same amount of milk as a woman with a double D; she just has less fatty tissue compared to glandular tissue. There are other evolutionary reasons males may be attracted to larger breasts.

Hearing a Baby Cry Could Make a Woman’s Breasts Start to Leak

The release of breast milk, called the let-down reflex, usually happens after a baby has been sucking for about two minutes. The sucking triggers release of the hormone oxytocin, which stimulates milk production. Some women feel the let-down reflex as a tingling or a warmth.

But other stimuli can trigger production of oxytocin besides sucking, including emotional ones like looking at a picture of your baby, thinking of your baby, or hearing a recording of your baby. Sometimes even hearing any baby cry, not just your own, can trigger a sensitive let-down reflex.

Breastfeeding Can Make Nursing Mothers Feel High

Many women report a relaxed, calm state during breastfeeding, helping them bond with their babies. Others even say they experience euphoria, a breastfeeding high brought on by the release of the hormones oxytocin and prolactin that accompanies baby’s sucking. Some people call it being “milk drunk”.

As such, some claim it can be addictive. There’s not a lot of research to back it up, but some women swear that they get addicted because of the good feelings it brings and the calories it burns. Penelope Cruz famously stated that it’s addictive. “It’s hard when the day comes when you have to stop.”

You Can Do It with Body Modifications like Breast Implants or Nipple Piercings

Many women with breast implants can still breastfeed successfully. Incisions made through the armpit or underneath the breast tend to interfere with breastfeeding the least, whereas incisions around the areola can increase problems with feeding like reduced nipple sensitivity or blocked milk ducts. Implant placement below the pectoralis muscle usually leaves the milk glands intact for future feeding.

Although women shouldn’t breastfeed with nipple jewellery inserted, the hole it leaves shouldn’t interfere with feedings. Breast milk actually comes from many holes at once; an additional one that you added yourself won’t cause a problem. However, newer piercings have increased risk of infection, so they should be fully healed before attempting breastfeeding.

Sarah A. Downey is a writer at Ovuline, a women’s reproductive health startup helping women get pregnant using mobile apps. Follow her at @SarahADowney.


  • Breast milk also contains an amazing amount of anti bodies that fight against sickness. To the point that when my daughter had conjunctivitis, my wife used to squeeze breast milk into her eye and it would clear up in little over 24 hours.

    • This! Very true! When our little one was born, on the last day when we had to leave the hospital he developed a mild infection in his left eye, which then slowly spread to his right eye.
      The nurses told us to use saline to clean out his eyes every day when they would gunk up. It persisted for 3 weeks, then a midwife told us to clean his eyes with breastmilk. 2 days later,
      all signs of infection had cleared. 🙂

  • Thanks for this great article.

    There is one small thing you might want to correct – the bit about breasts “toughening up”. This language should not be used nowadays, because it is associated with outdated practices of toughening up nipples for breastfeeding. Women used to be told to rub all sorts of things on their nipples trying to do this, resulting in injury to the delicate tissue. What actually should happen is that the nipples become slightly more stetchable, and the woman gets used to the feeling of being suckled on for a significant part of the day. However the nipples should still stay soft. The body produces a natural lubricant to facilitate this, and it is not necessary to put anything (except the baby) on the nipples.

    It is normal to experience some discomfort in the early days of breastfeeding, but actual pain is not normal and the woman should seek help as soon as possible. The most frequent cause of pain is an incorrect ‘latch’, where the baby is basically not getting enough breast into her/his mouth (there’s a reason it’s called breast-feeding and not nipple-feeding! The nipple needs to be behind the baby’s hard palate to avoid damage). If the pain is not resolved quickly, it is best that the woman see a lactation consultant, because many health care professionals (even some midwives and child health nurses) do not know enough about breastfeeding to help effectively.

    Iz (breastfeeding counselor)

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