I hate breastfeeding: It makes me feel like my soul is seeping from my body. But in a few weeks, my son will be 1, which means I’ll have met the American Association of Pediatrics’ recommendation to breastfeed the entire first year. But before I burn my nursing bra and gallop off toward freedom, never to think of breastfeeding again, I wanted to try to capture the physical sensation. Like a blood-pressure cuff, tightening and loosening? Something akin to vomiting, a sensation of relief amid waves of discomfort? Nothing seems quite as acute as the feeling itself.
Curious how others might put breastfeeding into words, I asked a bunch of women — some who breastfed decades ago, some currently nursing tiny babies — for their impressions. Their responses are generous, vivid, and varied; they mention pain and serenity, being bitten, liken the sensation to peeing, describe a sexual side effect, and more. Read them in full below.
Alicia*: At first, I had sharp pains as if someone was using a Shop-Vac on my boob. I could have sworn the baby had teeth — I would even get a little queasy sometimes. Once my milk really came in and feeding was easier, nursing gave me relief because my boobs would be so full. I have a strong let-down and could feel my boobs get hard and tingly. Then I’d feel the baby sucking out the milk and gulping it down.
Julia: I tell women about to give birth to do what is easiest. For me, with baby No. 1 that was the bottle. For baby No. 2, it was the breast. If I close my eyes and focus, I can still feel that tingling trickle of my milk letting down. It calms me even just to think of it.
Myra: During the two years I breastfed, I experienced projectile milk every time I orgasmed. It was fascinating to watch the jets of milk correspond with my contractions. Wild! And messy.
Ashleigh: Breastfeeding is boring. The numb arms, numb legs, numb mind. God help you if you don’t have your phone near you when you start a session.
I also discovered the sensation of being “touched out.” Especially with cluster feeding [when babies feed for short amounts of time close together]! After a tiny person is in physical contact with you for hours on end … and then your significant other tries to put a hand on your shoulder or your other kid tries to snuggle up for a minute? You feel like you want to crawl out of your own skin. But, for all breastfeeding’s faults, it is immensely satisfying to watch your baby grow, and know that is directly because of you.
Lauren: Breastfeeding is kind of like peeing: It feels good, and it’s a relief. Unless your child is having a growth spurt and eating more than normal — then it kind of burns.
Anna: The right latch is like a thousand tiny super-magnets. A bad latch, though, is body-curling pain, like sandpaper on bleeding wounds, and you have to keep doing it over and over because newborns nurse all the time — you never get respite to heal. Good or bad, what was most surprisingly to me about breastfeeding is the complete lack of gentleness.
Lindsey: My children nursed easily — it was a simple sucking sensation. The milk let-down, though, was always awkward and strained. The overwhelming tingling sensation (like when your leg is asleep for a long time and suddenly starts to wake up) mixed with the sudden weight in my breast — it was never quite painful, but uncomfortable.
Mary-Andrée: If the latch is incorrect, breastfeeding feels like a rug burn or wide paper cut on your nipple. Eventually it gets better and feels like tiny tapping vibrations. When engorged, your breast feels like it has a charlie horse that can only be relieved by pumping or having your baby drink as much as possible, fast!
Joanne: Right before he starts, my baby looks some combination of desperate, relieved, and overjoyed. It feels so good to be able to meet his needs in such a simple way. When he latches on, it often hurts for about 30 seconds — I get a pinching sensation, which is painful, while simultaneously feeling relaxed.
After a while, my baby starts to fidget, which eventually turns into playing. He sticks his fingers in my mouth, fiddles with my hair or my bra strap (this appears to be where bra-snapping starts), feels the zipper on my hoodie. I start to get charming smiles. Then there’s the game of “oh, he’s all done,” where I snap up my nursing bra and pull down my shirt. I do this back and forth several times as he takes long breaks, then decides he definitely isn’t finished nursing.
Tami: At the beginning it was like ten sharp needles being poked straight into my nipple for about 15 seconds each time she nursed. I also remember having a deep, deep itch on the roof of my mouth with every little suckle.
Gabrielle: The first few days and weeks it feels like you really have to pee and can finally let it out — and literally have to hold something under the non-baby breast to catch a good-size stream. Later it evens out, but if I go too long without nursing or pumping my breast starts to cramp and throb like a deep bruise.
Alexa: It’s like a slight tugging, not in an unpleasant way, on my nipple. It’s a snuggly time for us, complete with little hands giving me a breast massage. I had my first clogged duct recently, though, and it was no joke. My upper arm brushing against that spot on my breast would make me jump. When I’m engorged, my breasts are rock-hard, porn-star boobs. I’m afraid to move, even to roll over in bed, because I don’t want to squirt milk all over and wake up in an actual puddle on the bed.
Nursing is definitely different with my second. I usually have my toddler hanging off of me, and the baby winds up getting nursed everywhere. The other day we were at a play area and I was nursing her in the carrier while going to the bathroom. I don’t even carry the cover with me anymore — I just don’t give a fuck who sees me nurse this time.
Amber: It sort of feels like a little limpet has attached itself to you and is suctioning out your breast. (This may be because my child is an enthusiastic and insatiable eater.) When my kid was a tiny baby it was so sweet and warm and cuddly (and still kind of is), except now she also punches and bites me sometimes in between the cuddling. The biting is honestly more startling than painful — though the first time you see you see your child’s mouth ring with your blood you may slightly panic.
Susan: The warmth and pressure triggered a visceral feeling of relief. A small not-quite-tingle but definitely *something* exploded in my breast — the let-down. The lactation nurses tell you about it. I would even doze while he fed. The warm, moist rhythm of his sucks were calming as the hardness of my breast, full with milk, would finally recede.
Jennifer: Nursing my first child felt like the gentlest of tugs, followed by a warm sensation. Total bliss. My second child? Imagine being pulled on like a piece of taffy that has caught fire!
Brittney: In the first few weeks it felt extremely painful because I had open wounds and/or scabbing on my nipples. But once that period ended, breastfeeding felt like … drifting off to sleep. When my milk lets down I get verrrry drowsy.
Katie: It’s a warm, often relieving, gentle, rhythmic pulling/tugging/nibbling sensation at the nipple with some suction (which strengthens if you try to pull away or end the nursing session before the baby’s ready). One time I fell asleep nursing my daughter and when I woke she had been suckling on the side of my breast. I actually got a hickey!
Kira: My son’s little gum ridges are surprisingly hard and can feel like binder clips if he clamps down, which he does when grunting to push out poop (elegant, I know). But on good days, when he’s quiet and focused, breastfeeding can be the most satisfying thing in the world. Sometimes he reaches up with this intense gaze, patting my face or tugging my hair, like he’s memorizing me.
Carla: Tiny, warm, ravenous pincers attempting to suckle all sensation out of your nipple. A few seconds later, your boob wakes up and shoves milk down the ducts, which begins with an itchy tingle and ends in a bloated sort of ache that thankfully recedes as your baby drinks. Past that point — as gross as this sounds — it’s just a gentle drainage.
Michelle: The let-down part feels like a sharp, warm tingle in my breasts. It even happens in the boob that baby is not feeding on, when I hear her crying, or when it’s about time for her to get hungry again (and when I get naked hugs from my husband …). Once the baby’s latched on, I feel a little squeezing and gentle scraping from her tongue. A friend asked me if there’s any sensation of fluid coming out, the way we feel ourselves peeing or our noses running. My answer is no, and at first I couldn’t really tell if anything was coming out at all. Sometimes she unlatches by gasping and pulling her head back, and that feels exactly like what it is: a tiny toothless mouth yanking on my nipple.
Megan: I had to use a shield due to something the lactation consultant very professionally diagnosed as a “non-sticky-outy” nipple, and it was like: Get that on, get the pillow, position the baby, try to latch and — okay. Never mind, the shield moved. Let’s start over! New position for the baby, hold the shield in place with one hand, and — nope. My daughter is now sliding down into the space between me and the armrest of the glider that, during pregnancy, I imagined would be our special nursing/bonding spot. Breastfeeding felt like juggling to me.
And then pumping just made me feel inhuman, I hated it. I was also convinced that the pump’s wheezing sound was actually it yelling at me, over and over. “NIP-PLE! NIP-PLE!”
Aimee: The actual feeling of swelling with milk is completely bizarre, more so than the actual feeding in my experience. It feels like a dam broke and my boobs got bombarded by a flash flood of warm milk. The best way to describe it is relief from pressure, like slowly letting air out of a balloon. If the air seeps out slowly enough you hardly notice it, but the pressure drops.
*Responses have been edited and condensed, and first names have been used for privacy’s sake.