One of the most important things to know is the signs that breastfeeding isn’t working. More and more women are finding that biologically breastfeeding is NOT working — and they are not actually feeding their baby (often accompanied by guilt). This post teaches the signs that breastfeeding isn’t working, and share’s this RN’s tale of when breastfeeding didn’t work for me.
**If you are concerned that breastfeeding really isn’t working — my friend Katie (actual friend) has a course on troubleshooting breastfeeding and the price is right! FYI, If you haven’t given birth yet I recommend a general online breastfeeding class << That post shares my top ones, all at different price points.
First off, let me state CATEGORICALLY, I am a STRONG proponent of breastfeeding. I think it is the A#1 best way to feed your child. There are so many wonderful things about it.
But, there are times when breastfeeding isn’t working – it didn’t work myself and my first baby (or any of my other kids). And I didn’t know it for days. I had a constantly screaming baby, bleeding nipples, and emotions that could’ve exploded our 2 bedroom apartment.
I had been told that breastfeeding ALWAYS works. Sadly, that is a lie, sometimes it truly just doesn’t work.
In fact, I just recorded a podcast about it (it’s with Katie that does that troubleshooting class)
Signs That Breastfeeding Isn’t Working
Hilary is a nurse who has worked in various medical fields for the past 21 years, however, none of the information on this blog should be substituted for the care of a physician. The information provided on this blog is informational only and shouldn’t be taken as medical advice. If you have questions, please ask your doctor or a certified lactation consultant. Also, please don’t delay contacting a physician due to something you have read on here. Please read my full terms here.
There are a few basic ways to feel like breastfeeding isn’t working (although it is better/easier to look for signs that it IS working in general — and we will cover that next):
- Baby cries a lot, even after a feeding.
- Baby isn’t having frequent wet/poopy diapers (we’ll talk about what to watch for in a second)
- Baby isn’t gaining weight — and that is likely something you would see at a pediatrician’s or a lactation visit.
Signs Breast-Feeding IS Working
1. Wet Diapers is a sign breastfeeding IS working
Babies should have 6-8 wet diapers/day. Newborns should have a wet diaper per day of age up until they’re getting 6-8). So, on day two — they should have 2 wet diapers. If they’re not producing that much, you need to think about what is not working.
There are reasons BESIDES breastfeeding, why this might be — but breastfeeding is something you should consider. Babies poop should also start to change from the black tar to another color (depending on your feeding method — but mustard yellow if you’re nursing).
These are my favorite newborn diapers, love the line that shows if they pee’d (because you can’t always tell).
2. Engorgement is a sign that you have milk!
On day 2-5 (sometimes longer) you’ll feel your breasts “turn-on” and fill with milk. If you don’t feel that, they might not be filling up.
I get hot boobs, but I never feel them fill. I never have them over-fill, they just don’t fill. Don’t forget some washable breastpads while we talk engorgement!
Related post: Need more sleep? – Check out my Owlet Rewview
3. Milk in their mouth is a sign breastfeeding IS working
If you pull them off, you should see milk in their mouth (once your milk has come in). Make sure you use your finger to break the latch, don’t just yank them off. Babies tongues already look a little white, but if you SEE milk, you know you’ve struck gold. Mind at ease.
Please note, you won’t see this as much before your milk comes in, because colostrum looks fairly clear.
4. Weight gain is a sign breastfeeding is working
I would guess most pediatricians will come let you do a weight every day to see if they’re gaining. At Kaiser (where I had my last 2 babies) they do a weight check, let you feed, and weigh again — to see how they’re doing.
They often do those at in-person lactation consults (not just at Kaiser). It is a downfall of internet-supported lactation consults. You can always go to your pediatrician’s for a weight check though (or buy a baby scale — it’s actually a lot cheaper than I thought it would be!)
Princess P was such a great sucker. I’d latch her on for half an hour and she’d go to town. I thought for sure she was getting milk and it was GOING TO WORK that time! She would lose weight instead of gaining — just because she was working so hard to suck with no reward.
Also, did you know you can get a free breastpump (if you have traditional insurance and live in the US)? AeroFlow makes it easy:
They’ll do all the work for you. They’ll contact your insurance, find out what pumps you can get and then you can order through them and ship it right to your house. One less thing to worry about! Give them a try today!
5. Swallowing is a sign breastfeeding is working
This is actually one of the very best, and the easiest ways to tell. My oldest never swallowed.
You need to have a quiet room to hear this one, but you’ll kind of hear a whispered letter “C” sound when they swallow. You can also, sometimes — depending on your position — see their Adam’s apple bob when they swallow. Babies should swallow every 3-4 sucks.
If they’re not swallowing, either you’re not noticing it, or something is wrong.
If you’re still pregnant, there are things you can do to prepare yourself for breastfeeding. I also have a couple of online classes I recommend:
- The Breastfeeding Mama’s Complete Breastfeeding Course — I believe this one is the most comprehensive and Katie helps troubleshoot in this one too. She also realizes we all have lives and have to balance that with the importance of breastfeeding — which is really important to me!
- Milkology (it’s just $19 bucks guys!)
- Simply Breastfeeding — this one is a little more in-depth, taught by two IBCLC nurses. A little more medical (and possibly a bit more boring — but also very calming if you prefer that).
I have an Online Prenatal Class that includes all things pregnancy & newborn care, but I left breastfeeding to a class JUST on that….
When breastfeeding doesn’t work
The thing, with nursing, is that the more you stress out about it, the worse the problem gets.
You’re the cow. You need to be healthy and happy to produce for your little wonder. But, the worse it got and the more he cried I just felt like the biggest failure that God ever created. The simple truth is that sometimes breastfeeding doesn’t work. It’s a small percentage (although I hear it is on the rise), but it’s true.
I say try, try, try, but if it’s not working you’re lucky that God gave us formula. It isn’t poison, it won’t kill your baby and it may put your mind at ease remembering it’s an option.
Ways to Make Breastfeeding Work
If you do think a lack of production is your problem, you will likely need help troubleshooting. There are things they can recommend to increase your supply (fenugreek, increasing fluids, I even tried Reglan — which made me crazy — so be mindful). It is certainly worth it to try to build it up.
Reasons you can’t breastfeed
There are LOADS of reasons that breastfeeding may or may not work. The reality is that you really need to try. Give the breasts lots of stimulation, even if you think it won’t work. Reasons I have seen (and there are a lot more than this)
- Previous breast surgery (implants or reductions)
- Hormonal imbalances
- Tubular breasts
- Stress (more women can’t breastfeeding during war time vs non-war time — in historical studies)
- Nipple Issues (often make it a lot more difficult but usually can be worked around if you work hard at it and seek help from a lactation consultant)
We do talk about some of the reasons in that podcast I mentioned above.
Breastfeeding Didn’t Work For Me
With my first, I thought breastfeeding would just work. I had heard countless times that breastfeeding works for everyone if you work hard enough when I was in nursing school.
So, I just tried and tried. He screamed and screamed.
I finally noticed a lack of wet diapers and no poop… so I started to get a little nervous.
But, I kept trying… I called lactation. We were really poor, so having an in-person consult was out of our price range (this is back before insurance even considered paying for it). We did rent a hospital pump (remember you can get one free).
In retrospect, I spent a 20-minute call with a woman, spent the majority of it crying — and her advice was to get up every 2 hours at night to pump.
To a woman who was clearly on the edge (because I was also crying for the majority of the time I wasn’t on the phone with her), she told me to basically stop getting sleep and put every last ounce of myself into a bottle.
**AS an L&D RN of almost 20 years I can tell you that this was 100% the WRONG ADVICE** At no point should someone’s mental well-being come below their milk supply.
Simply put (and I can say this now that I’ve been an L&D RN for 17 years), Her advice was not the right advice.
At a certain point, you may need to throw in the towel and do what works for you. Some lactation consultants aren’t very good at remembering that you aren’t a cow, and you have feelings and a brain.
And breastfeeding isn’t worth losing your mind over.
I remember fighting the urge to shake him when he wouldn’t latch right or would just sit there and scream at me.
No mom should be at that point. I should have popped a bottle in his mouth. He was starving. And I 100% believe that fed is best (although I don’t find that page to be particularly breastfeeding-friendly).
Unable to breastfeed guilt
I feel this every. time. (I’ve had two other children after that first one).
Somehow, during those 9 months, I somehow think it WILL work this time. I will get more than a cc when I pump. Everything will work out this time.
But, it doesn’t.
And I cry and cry (this post shows that pretty clearly, and I actually wrote it RIGHT after my 3rd baby). And then I pop in that formula bottle.
With my last one, I already had two successful readers by the age 3. It didn’t make a difference, I still felt guilty.
Just recently my formula-fed baby (that I almost starved) scored on the 99th percentile on the ACT, so I guess I still made smart little brains with formula (I can’t tell you how many times I’d burst into tears when I’d see a news story about how much smarter breastfeed babies are than formula babies).
Hang in there new moms. It’s a tough, long, journey.
Breastfeeding Isn’t Working FAQ’s
Diapers. If they’re not having wet diapers, they aren’t getting milk.
Other easy ways include swallowing, milk on their tongue and engorgement that eases when they eat.
Look at the cues above — those are more important, crying can happen for MANY reasons.
You realize that you love your baby more than any other human on earth (besides, his/her dad) and that love will carry you through many hard times.
I would call your pediatrician and see what formula they recommend (but any formula you have at home will work in the meantime).
Here is my promise to you: (and I can 100% promise this) that your choice to breast or bottle feed your baby (as long as you FEED your baby) is not the worst parenting choice you’ll make — not by a longshot. 🙂
Just wait til’ they’re teenagers (I want to shake him a lot now too — and yes, he does still scream at me)
Anyway — I recommend a few breastfeeding classes.
- The Breastfeeding Mama — I love how Katie helps troubleshoot and encourages you. Good stuff!
- Milkology — I love the price, and this is the basic hospital breastfeeding class done REALLY well. Just the basics, and a GREAT price for it!
- Simply Breastfeeding — a bit more in-depth (and the price shows) it’s like getting taught by your sweet grandma. A good class indeed. Love the tips from parents, golden gems!
I have a whole post on when to take a breastfeeding class, where I go over those options a bit more thoroughly.
Don’t forget to get my best tips to make sure breastfeeding IS working.
Here are some of my other breastfeeding posts:
Do NOT miss my new post about what you REALLY need for that new baby!This post was originally writte in 2014, but has been updated.