Canadian model Willow Allen's breastfeeding struggles left her feeling 'defeated': 'I felt a lot of shame'

Experts say "most" women experience some issue with breastfeeding — so why aren't we talking about it?

Model Willow Allen and her son, August Rivers. (Images via Instagram/willow.allen)
Model Willow Allen and her son, August Rivers. (Images via Instagram/willow.allen)

When Willow Allen first started taking prenatal classes during her pregnancy, there were two things about motherhood that immediately surprised her: One: breastfeeding is hard. Two: no one is really talking about it.

“I heard that the most difficult part can be latching them properly, but I didn't realize how many other difficulties there could be aside from initially figuring it out,” Allen tells Yahoo Canada.

When she gave birth to her first child, a son named August Rivers, in January of this year, the Saskatchewan-based model experienced the complexities of breastfeeding firsthand. Bedridden and recovering for the first three days after he was born, Allen was unable to hold her son, change his diapers or sit up to breastfeed.

“It just made me feel left out and like I wasn't able to take care of him,” she says. “I just wanted to be able to be there for him, but I couldn't.” It also ended up affecting her breastmilk supply.

When Allen was able to breastfeed, she faced even more challenges and experienced pain during feedings. She says she received conflicting advice that often left her confused. For the first week, Allen thought she would need to learn to live with the pain, until she discovered that her son had tongue-tie, a condition that affects approximately 5 per cent of babies and limits the tongue's range of motion and can cause issues with latching and swallowing.

In a TikTok video last month, Allen called breastfeeding "one of the most challenging" aspects of motherhood and admitted she had no idea how difficult it would be. Allen said she felt "defeated" and "emotional" and would be "crying in pain" when feeding her son.

In the video, Allen says that once her son's tongue-tie was corrected, it took several weeks for her to breastfeed without pain. However, her problems with milk production caused her to breast feed for 40 minutes, supplement with formula, and then have to pump for 20 to 40 minutes to increase her supply. With a newborn that ate every two hours, feeding August took up most of her day.

The video quickly took off on social media, with other parents sharing their own challenges as well as the ways in which they did — or did not — receive support.

“I wish I knew more about what [breastfeeding] feels like and [about] it feeling wrong,” Allen says. “Because that was the most difficult thing, [was] to try to communicate to people.”

Most people have some kind of issue with feedingRose Le Blanc

Breastfeeding is easy — and other lies mothers are told

For Toronto-based Lactation Consultant Rose Le Blanc, Allen's experience isn’t necessarily surprising. “I would say the biggest issue [with breastfeeding] is just thinking that it's going to go smoothly,” Le Blanc explains.

While there’s often an emphasis on preparation for labour and delivery, there’s much less conversations among non-mothers and on social media about breastfeeding. ”We think everything else will just fall into place, because it’s natural,” Le Blanc says, “I’ll just breastfeed if I want to breastfeed.” Which isn’t always the case. “I would say most people have some kind of issue with feeding,” she adds.

These common issues can range from babies not being able to latch at all, which Le Blanc says can take a lot of time and patience to figure out, to nipple pain, the number one issue breastfeeding parents encounter. “It hurts. It can be very painful,” Le Blanc says of the experience. “You can get nipple wounds and it feels like your nipples are on fire.”

While people are often encouraged to believe that painful nipples are a normal and expected part of breastfeeding, that’s not always the case. Instead, it can be indicative of issues with feeding that may need an adjustment. “The latch is the problem,” Le Blanc adds. “Sometimes it is just the way we're positioning the baby, sometimes it's a tongue-tie, sometimes it's a very tight jaw [from] the long labor and delivery; so there's always a reason for nipple pain."

And this can have an impact on new parents’ mental health, who are already going through a new and — often exhausting — experience. “If you have a fear of your baby not getting enough [milk], that's an extra layer [on top of everything else],” Le Blanc says.

For Allen, complicated feelings would especially arise when other mothers asked about how breastfeeding was going for her. While an innocent question, “I felt a lot of shame in saying [that] I'm not doing it anymore,” Allen says, “and it's such a long explanation as to why I'm not.”

For new and expecting parents, Le Blanc recommends having a prenatal breastfeeding session with a lactation consultant who can help new parents feel heard and prepared. “We chat for an hour about things to look out for, how to know when things aren't going well,” Le Blanc says. “I think that that's really key in giving you the confidence to advocate for yourself.”

A happy baby is a fed baby

Three-and-a-half weeks after giving birth, Allen made the decision to switch to formula-only feeding, a decision she says has made feeding so much easier. The process, though, has included actively working on unlearning feelings of guilt and shame that surround her decision.

I just kind of came to learn that whatever works for me and August works for us and all that matters is that he's being fed.Willow Allen

“I think it came with sort of accepting that it wasn't working and just knowing when I couldn't do it anymore,” she says. “I really pushed myself beyond what I was really capable of going through emotionally, or the pressure of continuing trying to get it even though it was very painful.” Allen says the support she’s received from those around her during the process of switching to bottle feeding, and since sharing her experience on social media, has also helped in not feeling that guilt. That, and the fact that, at almost two months old, her son is happy and healthy. “I just kind of came to learn that whatever works for me and August works for us and all that matters is that he's being fed.”

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