Breastfeeding is many things, but it's seldom effortless or free of emotion.
While chic breastfeeding photo shoots on social media may make it look so easy, we're here for the 81% of mothers who say that breastfeeding and the postpartum experience is not “realistically portrayed” in the media, according to a 2021 survey by baby supply company Lansinoh.
Not everyone will breastfeed, and that's OK: Fed is best, whether that's formula, breastfeeding, pumping or some combination of all three.
We're observing World Breastfeeding Week (Aug. 1 to Aug. 7), by asking moms to share the real side of breastfeeding — the joyful, frustrating and unconventional — as captured in photos.
'I felt badass'
Two months ago, Oregon mom Ali gave birth to her second child, sparking an endorphin-packed "moment of empowerment."
Portland birth photographer Natalie Broders was there to capture Ali's joy — after a successful VBAC (vaginal birth after a previous cesarean), her daughter Freyja took to breastfeeding right away.
"I felt badass," Ali (who requested that TODAY Parents omit her last name for privacy) told TODAY Parents. "I shot my fist in the air, like ‘Go me!’”
Four years ago, nursing her daughter Kaiya was "tumultuous," explained Ali. "I stopped after five months because she had tongue and lip ties."
When Freyja immediately latched, Ali cried. "I realized, that's how it's supposed to feel like instead of guilt," she said. "Nursing hasn't been a breeze, but we're powering through it."
'I had so much mom guilt'
Four days after Tanefer Camara delivered her fourth child, Esangu, at home in 2020, he was lethargic, floppy and his eyes had a yellow tinge.
Camara, a doula and lactation consultant, knew Esangu had jaundice, just like her three other children, who had mild cases that didn't need treatment.
The condition, confirmed by doctors at the hospital, means an infant's blood contains too much bilirubin (a yellow substance found in digestive fluid) that cannot be passed through urine or stool. The typical treatment for jaundice is phototherapy. In Camara's case, she had a blood incompatibility with Esangu that caused his jaundice.
"I thought, 'Did I do something to cause this?' I had so much mom guilt," Camara, 40, of Oakland, California, told TODAY Parents.
Camara worried about being able to breastfeed in the hospital. While many NICU babies nurse, formula is sometimes supplemented to avoid disturbing phototherapy. As a lactation consultant, Camara knows of mothers who were outright discouraged from breastfeeding in the NICU.
To nurse Esangu, Camara kept him wrapped in his portable phototherapy device and swiveled the overhead light in her direction, placing him on her breast.
One night, she snapped a photo of her son bathed in the blue light of the equipment while he nursed.
“Breastfeeding does not have to be interrupted because of jaundice,” said Camara. "The experience helped me provide a whole new level of advocacy for parents going through this."
Related: Breastfeeding diet: What to eat and drink while breastfeeding
Maryah Laine's childbirth experience was "the best and the saddest" moment of her life, she said.
When the 24-year-old nurse went into labor with daughter Kataleya two years ago, she was living in New York, with her husband stuck in the Dominican Republic, due to COVID travel restrictions. They spoke via FaceTime during the 36-hour labor and delivery.
Laine was supported by her doula, a midwife, her family and birth photographer Colby Tulachanh of The House of Wild, who shot Laine breastfeeding her daughter for the first time.
"They put her on my chest and I just collapsed," Laine told TODAY Parents. "Everything felt really blurry around me but I felt like, mission accomplished. I have my daughter now."
Although her daughter latched on immediately, Laine's milk ducts later clogged (which can happen, for example, with changes in feeding schedules or if the breast doesn't completely drain milk).
"It was the most miraculous breastfeeding journey and I was ready for it," said Laine. "There's a lot of relief in that photo."
Related: 5 breastfeeding positions for moms to try
'Not one of my favorite photos'
Ana Martinez, a certified lactation counselor and registered nurse in Las Vegas, Nevada, is uncertain how she feels about this photo, snapped in July 2020.
Although it shows her daughter Aesir latching, "It's not one of my favorite photos. I don't look pretty — it's too raw," Martinez, a mother of three, told TODAY Parents.
The 31-year-old gave birth at home and was in the third stage of labor (delivering the placenta) when she began breastfeeding, surrounded by three midwives, a doula, a friend, her mother-in-law, her husband and their daughter Amelia, now 6. She didn't notice her birth photographer Lisa Weingardt of Little Loo Photography snapping photos.
Martinez didn't know what to expect on her second breastfeeding journey, having "zero" support in that area with her first child.
"Aesir was a problematic breastfeeder because she had tongue and lip ties," said Martinez, an oral restriction that makes nursing difficult.
After a frenectomy (an oral procedure) and feeding therapy to strengthen Aesir's tongue muscles, she was able to nurse and has been going strong for two years.
Martinez also has an 11-week-old daughter, Adelyn, who she said nurses “like a champ.” Because she has an oversupply of breast milk, Martinez has donated it to a mom whose baby has feeding challenges.
'I am blessed'
For Cyarra Miller of Lexington, Kentucky, breastfeeding bonded her family.
When her 16-month-old son Cyrus was born, Miller's daughter Charlotte, now 3, joined the feedings with her baby doll.
"She would say, 'The baby wants milk,'" Miller told TODAY Parents. "The first time she did it, I laughed. It was so cute. So I encouraged her by saying, 'You're feeding your baby. Good job!'"
During a family shoot with photographer T.A. Yero of Two Hearts Media, Charlotte mimicked her mom breastfeeding Cyrus.
The tradition is informative for Charlotte, who is learning about how bodies work. "She knows where milk comes from," said Miller.
Miller didn't have problems breastfeeding either of her children, thanks to her web of social support, which studies found encourages longer breastfeeding outcomes.
"I had people around me who were passionate about it so she educated me on how to be successful," explained Miller.
"Breastfeeding both my kids has been incredible," she said. "I am blessed."
'Breast on fire'
New York City doula Lindsey Bliss took a selfie in her most vulnerable moment, only to see it shared everywhere on social media.
During a 2017 ride home from a baby shower, the mother of seven felt heat and tightness in her left breast. She recognized it as mastitis, an agonizing breast infection that develops from clogged milk ducts or a bacterial infection.
Bliss had forgotten to pump milk for her one-year-old daughter Olympia before leaving the house and her breasts were engorged. Months ago, she had mastitis, but Bliss assumed it wouldn't happen again as it mostly surfaces during the newborn period.
"I was shocked by how sick I was," Bliss, 43, told TODAY Parents. "My breast was on fire."
Antibiotics brought down her fever and inflammation. However Bliss was advised by a lactation consultant to continue nursing her baby, a conventional treatment.
Bliss took a breastfeeding selfie for Instagram — “I hadn’t even washed off my makeup” — where it boomed.
“I don’t want the photo to deter anyone from breastfeeding but we see many unrealistic images,” said Bliss. “Some moments were pure magic and others were hell. For me, it was worth it. But we don’t talk enough about the realities of this journey.”
'Crazy and wild'
"If you had asked me ten years ago I'd be breastfeeding my 3-year-old minutes before pushing out another baby, I wouldn't have believed you," Kate Lyons, of Pittsburgh Born Photography, told TODAY Parents.
In 2017, while Kate Lyons was laboring to birth her second child Maci, her first daughter Ella experienced "big feelings."
"We had prepared her for the birth by watching videos and explaining that mommy might make funny noises," recalled Lyons. "At the 11th hour, she got super tired and upset."
Lyons had nursed Ella during labor but when it came time to push, she got on all fours. "I yelled, 'That's it, the baby is coming!' and kept nursing," she said. "Then my mother-in-law carried Ella out and I pushed out the baby."
Jessica Thomas, a photographer, took the image, which unbeknownst to the women, sparked a new life chapter.
"Photography was always a hobby and a dream job but this (photo) motivated me to do it (professionally)," said Lyons.
The women stayed in touch and in 2018, they launched their photography business, Pittsburgh Born Photography, to preserve birth memories for other families.
As Lyons explained, "I want other birthing people to see themselves in that same empowerment."