This post isn’t about people who turn their nose up at a mum breastfeeding her baby in a café, or staunch bottle-feeders with a hang-up against breastfeeding. This week, I wanted to explore some of the reasons why mothers persevere through breastfeeding, even when it brings up negative feelings for them. I find this fascinating. Where do those feelings come from and why do they happen?
One of the biggies is something called breastfeeding aversion. This can often happen in pregnancy, and can just start out because of nipple sensitivity, which naturally develops as the pregnancy progresses. One mum I knew, 10 weeks into her second pregnancy, felt like throwing her toddler across the room when she latched on. ‘I started to feel like a hypocrite’, she told me. ‘I had been so supportive of breastfeeding and had never thought that I could develop such negative feelings towards it.’ After a fairly quick weaning, she felt better when she learnt her feelings were part of a mammalian instinct where the body naturally weans the older child before the next one comes along.
If mums are turned off breastfeeding during the early days of having a newborn, especially when there are feelings of anxiety, sadness, or dread during let-down, this may be the result of another condition called Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex (D-MER). Some mums with D-MER even think suicidal thoughts or angry feelings as their babies start sucking, but they don’t continue for longer than a few minutes. Sounds pretty horrible, huh? The important thing to realise here is that this is a physiological condition related to hormones (mostly the mood-altering dopamine, which controls the secretion of the milk-making hormone, prolactin), not a psychological one. One affected mum even said she felt like the victim of those soul-sucking dementors in Harry Potter. If women are able to persevere through these feelings, they will likely decrease around 3 months (a diagnosis really helps, as they know it will lessen), or there are medications to help with severe cases, and the mum doesn’t want to wean.
The let-down reflex is a funny thing. It seems to trigger all sorts of feelings. Some feel itching in the breast or underarm, others feel waves of nausea as the milk spurts out. Both are related to the release of the oxytocin hormone. If you itch, try not to scratch. It usually dissipates once the let-down finishes and is caused by increased blood flow in the area. If you feel like you’re gonna throw up while feeding, be sure to have a bottle of water on hand, and something to eat before you feed. It’s often related to dehydration, low-blood sugar or just plain old exhaustion and forgetting to eat.
Postnatal depression is a huge topic and I can’t begin to address it in any detail here, but it can cause women to hate breastfeeding, especially when it becomes overwhelming when you and your baby are both learning this new skill on top of feelings of inadequacy as a mother. Though not an answer to these musings, I do love Brooke Shields’ take on things in her autobiography, Down Came the Rain. She said that while she felt disconnected emotionally from her baby when suffering severe PND, she felt physically connected to her through the breastfeeding. She was constantly told to give up from concerned family and friends, because she wasn’t coping, but she wanted to cling to the only bond she had formed with her child. Of course, there are some women who can’t continue with breastfeeding through PND, and they just have to make the best decision for their mental health at that time. Weaning may just be one of those decisions.
Lastly I wanted to touch on women who have been sexually abused. When someone says ‘breastfeeding is disgusting’, it no longer makes me mad or want to question them further, as it once did. I now know something horrible has probably happened in that person’s life to warrant such strong statements and I tend to leave it alone. When a victim of sexual abuse becomes a mother, breastfeeding can be very confronting for them. A baby touching their breasts can bring back bad memories of the abuser, and for some women, they can’t even bring themselves to even go there. Others want to work through it, but need help from a counsellor to combat those feelings. Other survivors find expressing and bottle-feeding is more comfortable.
For more information on these conditions, visit the Australian Breastfeeding Association website: