When Elizabeth O'Connell was expecting her first child, she knew she wanted to breast-feed. And, she says, she sort of expected it to just happen, naturally.
That's not quite how it panned out. "I was experiencing very tremendous pain," she says.
At first she figured that was normal — but soon it became too much to handle. "I was devastated," she says. "The reality is nursing is a wonderful bonding experience, but when you're in pain, you aren't really thinking about that."
O'Connell, who lives in Connecticut, says she really wanted it to work. Finally, she sought out a lactation specialist — and the whole process started to get easier. She consulted the experts when she had her second and her third child, as well.
Moms can run into a whole bunch of problems while nursing. In some cases, just helping women slightly shift the way they hold their babies or teaching the little ones to latch on properly can prevent or reduce the significant pain some women experience. Other cases are more complicated — some moms can't produce enough milk, for example, for a variety of reasons.
Post-pregnancy, you're hormonally charged, and sleep-deprived, "and it can be hard to breast-feed and not have it dominate your life," O'Connell says."When you call your consultant, it's like in walks this woman who is so knowledgeable and calm, and just tells you, 'Here's what you need to do.' "
Friends and family mean well, but sometimes add to the stress, says Ann Bennett, a certified lactation consultant based in Austin, Texas. Each woman's situation is different, and what works for one mom may not work for another.
"And a lot of the moms I see have never seen a woman nurse a baby," she says.
About 79 percent of women in the U.S. gave breast-feeding a try in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Breastfeeding Report Card, released this week.
Many bottle-fed babies thrive, of course, but the American Academy of Pediatrics and World Health Organization recommend that moms try to breast-feed exclusively for six months. Research suggests breast-fed babies are less likely to have ear infections and diarrhea as infants and may be less likely to be obese and have diabetes as adults.
Only 18 percent of American babies are getting breast milk exclusively at 6 months of age, according to the CDC report. The number of professional lactation specialists is increasing too, the CDC says, but slowly.
"We certainly are seeing a growing trend in improving the quality of maternity services," says Laurence Grummer-Strawn, chief of the CDC's nutrition branch. "But we want to see continued growth."