When breastfeeding isn't blissful
You’ve heard it over and over, time and time again: Breast is best. That is the truth and there is overwhelming evidence from massive bodies of research that babies are a lot better off physically when they are fed with breastmilk. Psychologically, breastfeeding also is hugely beneficial for babies. Breastfeeding can indeed be blissful, and it often is, both for the baby and for the mom. But sometimes it is not. That is the reality, unfortunately. Sometimes it is the baby who, for a number of different reasons, cannot seem to manage breastfeeding.
Sheena is a first time mom and she is fully aware of how important breastfeeding is for her developing baby. She never expected to have any problems with breastfeeding, and she was shattered when her baby struggled to latch and failed to gain weight. Sheena was bitterly disappointed and very confused by all the advice she was being given. She consulted with a breastfeeding specialist, but things still did not improve. People advised Sheena to persevere because there should be no real reason why her baby couldn’t breastfeed. Sheena was desperate and her baby was clearly suffering. He would scream with hunger but then refuse to take the breast, or he would begin sucking, then turn away and refuse to take more than a few sips. Sheena was beginning to feel she had failed as a mother because she couldn’t feed her child. She tried expressing breastmilk, thinking that perhaps her baby might find it easier to latch onto the teat from a bottle. She was right. That was the only way her baby would drink. So Sheena spent her days in an exhausting, endless cycle of expressing breastmilk, bottle-feeding, washing and sterilizing bottles and so on. She continued to persevere with the breastfeeding, but it led to such stress and anger in both her and her baby that she eventually gave up after 4 months of relentless struggling.
Sheena did all the right things and although she cannot be faulted in any way, she felt that people were pointing fingers at her and accusing her of being a bad mother because she couldn’t feed her child the ideal way. She felt terribly guilty and she spent hours, day and night trying to figure out what she was doing wrong and why. The doctor and the midwife that she consulted could not offer her any real help. They suggested formula feeds, but the baby refused to drink formula. Sheena felt extremely anxious and inadequate, knowing that she alone was responsible for feeding and nourishing her baby.
Psychologist and author of “The interpersonal world of the infant”, Prof. Daniel Stern, says that a mother (particularly a new mother) carries the psychological burden of believing she is responsible for keeping her baby alive. It is true that babies cannot survive without a mother (or substitute mother) to take care of them. Feeding is central to a baby’s survival. It also occupies a huge part of a mother and a baby’s day and night in the beginning. If there are problems with feeding, everyday life becomes fraught with anxiety and frustration for both the mom and the baby. At a deep psychological level, the mother’s fear is that her baby will die because she is not able to feed him. This fear is amplified if the baby is not gaining weight normally or if he is sickly. With good reason, mothers are often quite focused on worrying about their children’s eating well beyond babyhood. It is true that nutrition plays an essential role in the physical and emotional health of children. But perhaps the concern that mothers continue to have about their children’s eating patterns is a remnant of the early days of knowing that babies need a mother’s milk (or substitute) in order to survive.
But sometimes the breastfeeding struggle is located more in the mother than in the baby. Breastfeeding can be painful (usually just for the first couple of weeks, sometimes longer) and it can be physically tiring and draining. It can feel as though every last drop of energy has been zapped from you and you have been squeezed dry. The demands of a breastfeeding baby might be slightly higher than in a bottle fed baby, partly because breastmilk digests more quickly, so breastfed babies tend to feed more often. Nights are notoriously tricky, particularly perhaps for devoted, conscientious moms who are determined to be there for their babies when they are needed throughout the night. The breast might be needed quite a lot at night (perhaps partly for comfort and security). The best and the worst thing about breastfeeding is that no-one can do it for you. Not even at 3am. You might still choose to continue breastfeeding, knowing all it’s incredible benefits, but you might have less of a spring in your step about it than those enviable blissful breastfeeders.
Perhaps you experience the intimacy of breastfeeding to be too intense. Besides sex, there is probably no other time that you can be closer to another individual. You might feel uncomfortable and find it too sexual. The nakedness and physical contact can make you feel embarrassed, especially if it is tinged with erotic feelings. You can feel exposed, vulnerable and shy. Occasionally, mothers express concern about feeling sexually aroused during breastfeeding. If there was any kind of abuse in the childhood of those moms, they might feel deeply disturbed and terrified that they could potentially sexually abuse their own baby. This could obviously send a mother sprinting as fast as she can away from breastfeeding. Parent-infant psychotherapy or therapy with a trained mental health practitioner would be indicated when these kinds of issues arise.
Zinzi’s baby was 3 months old. Breastfeeding was highly evocative for Zinzi. She found it hard to sit down and feed her baby, apparently because she had such a busy life. She would rush through the breastfeeding whilst talking on the phone at the same time. She didn’t look at her baby whilst he was feeding and she didn’t allow herself and her baby to take the time to connect quietly and to bond during the breastfeeding. She felt awkward and uncomfortable having a baby drink from her own body. It made her feel like an animal. She just hoped and prayed each time that it would soon be over. The only thing that kept Zinzi breastfeeding was guilt. She knew it was important for her baby and she didn’t want to be a bad mother. A family friend referred Zinzi to a parent-infant psychologist. She began to understand that her reluctance to be close and connected to her baby was linked to her difficult relationship with her own mother who had been harsh and cruel to her when she was a child. Thankfully, after about 6 consultations Zinzi found it in herself to stop rushing and start tuning into her baby, especially during breastfeeding. She discovered the joy of breastfeeding as the priceless time when she and her baby could bond together.
It doesn’t necessarily mean that you had a difficult childhood if you struggle to manage the intimacy of breastfeeding. There are a myriad of reasons that can contribute to your feelings of discomfort around it. Some moms don’t like to lose their freedom or have their wings clipped. This is especially true if you did not want or plan your baby and you are not comfortable putting your life on hold. It is perhaps also true for very young mothers who do not feel ready for the overwhelming everyday demands of motherhood. You might be highly anxious about the effect that breastfeeding will have on the appearance of your breasts and your sexual desirability. You might be uncomfortable with feeling like a dairy cow as opposed to a sex goddess. Perhaps you are concerned about losing your partner’s love or his sexual interest in you. A sizzlingly sexual moment with your loved one might be somewhat dampened when your breastmilk starts leaking... a sneaky reminder that a passionate sex life and breastfeeding often don’t go hand in hand. In fact, consider yourself lucky if they happen in the same decade.
Another possibility is that if you are grieving the loss of someone you loved deeply, you might feel too vulnerable and emotionally fragile to breastfeed. In fact, you might struggle to keep a close and loving connection with your baby if someone close to you has recently died. New moms can also feel attacked, devoured and mutilated by their babies who can sometimes suck on the breast with a force that has to be experienced to be believed. Unless you are a masochist, there is nothing blissful about that.
A breastfeeding relationship is a highly dependent relationship. As long as she is breastfeeding from you, your baby literally cannot live without you, although of-course if necessary there are other alternatives such as bottles. But if you are breastfeeding, you are crucial to your baby, and she needs you a great deal of the time for your life-giving milk. If you have an aversion to being needed and relied on, this can feel unpleasant and even frightening. You might want to get away from this creature who needs you so much. Perhaps you have a powerful need to be independent and a great fear of your own dependency. Psychologists and parent-infant therapists are familiar with all of these issues and they can help you to deal with them.
Our society makes breastfeeding in public (like shopping centers) difficult. It is not blissful to be standing in a queue with a hungry, wailing baby and to be left with the option of either whipping out a breast in public – or leaving your much-desired place in the queue to search for a private feeding spot. In addition, you might well discover that the only place where you can feed in private is the ladies’ loo. Why society expects babies to take their feeds in toilets is entirely beyond me. There is often a prudish and disapproving attitude towards breastfeeding in public. This is entirely unhelpful for babies and their breastfeeding mothers.
Some mothers are not fortunate enough to be able to breastfeed even though they might long to do so. Certain physical and mental conditions or the reality of having to take certain toxic medications might take the choice of breastfeeding out of your hands. Your doctor or paediatrician can advise you about this. It can feel deeply painful for a mom not to be able to make the choice to breastfeed her own baby.
Of-course, you want to be a first class mom. But perhaps you might be one of those unlucky ones for whom breastfeeding has been a disappointment. Like so many other things around early parenthood and life in general, there is the idyllic expectation about how perfect it is all supposed to be, and then there is the reality of how things just are. Your baby will learn that many times in her life. If breastfeeding has been a struggle or if she didn’t have it at all, that is her first experience of the real world as opposed to the ideal world. She’ll be fine. It may not have been perfect, but with your love, care and sensitivity towards her babyhood needs, it will have been good enough. If you haven’t had the privilege of being a blissful breastfeeder, that is sad, but at least your baby still has you. She can live without your breasts. It’s you she really needs.
Adapted article by Jenny Perkel