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The Psychology of Breastfeeding: Why breastfeeding is not for everyone

June 15, 2012

In the wake of the Time magazine article on attachment parenting, and its provocative cover of a woman breastfeeding her four-year-old, I wanted to share a few thoughts on breastfeeding from a psychological perspective.

Breastfeeding is one of the most natural and beautiful exchanges that occur between two human beings, mother and child.  There is literally a flow of milk, energy, sustenance in this one act.  It is a gesture in which one human being, the mother, gives of herself so that the infant can survive, grow, and thrive.  It is a one-sided exchange, in which one member clearly gives, and the other simply takes.  In fact, one might call this an altruistic act on the part of the mother, who in moments of sheer exhaustion still reaches for baby and allows her to suckle on the breast.  Quite often, baby fusses at the breast, crying and flailing about, as mom temporarily suppresses her own urges to eat or go to the bathroom or sleep in order for baby to finish her feeding.  At times even, breastfeeding is downright painful for mom, as baby bites mom’s nipple to figure out a workable latch.  Or mom gets mastitis, an inflammation of the breast tissue which can cause severe discomfort and fever.  Still many moms love it…the bodily contact, the sense of connection, the opportunity to participate in the universal act of nurturing.

But breastfeeding is not for everyone.  From a psychological perspective it can trigger unresolved issues in many moms and therefore turn an idyllic mother child exchange into a torture chamber for two. For this act of breastfeeding to feel nurturing to the fullest, I might argue that mom must feel good about breastfeeding, and she should enjoy the experience more than she dreads it.

For many women the act of giving to a baby may bring up memories of a difficult childhood, a childhood in which they did not feel nurtured enough- if mom was not a recipient of love and nurturing, she might find it difficult to give that love and nurturing to her baby. She may then feel resentment towards her baby for demanding so much of her, and may find herself depleted by the act of a baby physically cloying at her in need.  In other words, the pain of mom’s unmet/unfulfilled needs might resurface.

Some studies suggest that women who suffer from postpartum depression have more difficulty breastfeeding.  This can occur for a number of reasons. Often moms become disappointed in themselves if they are unable to breastfeed and therefore start to fall into depression.  Or they are depressed as result of hormonal changes in the postpartum phase, and therefore unable to to weather some of the inevitable challenges that surface with the initial phases of breastfeeding.

For women who struggle with eating issues, breastfeeding might once again stir up some difficult feelings.  If mom finds it challenging to feed herself, what will it be like to feed her baby?  What’s it like to think about the baby’s hunger and satiation cues, if mom is disconnected from her own.  I have worked with moms who have worried about unconsciously transferring their eating disorders onto their infants.  Yet, they have bravely worked hard to reverse the ill effects upon themselves, and to create a safe enough environment for their children to experience their own hunger and fullness.

Women who do find themselves triggered by breastfeeding might choose to courageously work through the issues as they arise.  But even without any of these psychological triggers at play, some women just find breastfeeding physically demanding and expensive.  For instance, many women invest in lactation consultants, and breast pumps in order to boost their milk supply.  They find themselves anxious and worried about getting the breastfeeding going since baby’s growth depends on it.  They spend hours on the pump in order to provide milk, and don’t get to enjoy the first days of baby’s life.  They begin to lose sight of the true purpose of breastfeeding: to connect with baby!- all of their worry and anxiety about breastfeeding in fact leads to the very opposite, distance from baby.

I am a breastfeeding advocate- breast is wonderful.  However, more than anything, as a psychologist I believe in maintaining the sanctity of the psychological space between you and baby- that means making the psychological well being of you and your baby the top priority.  Baby needs a sane, happy, fulfilled mom more than she needs her breast.  If giving your baby the breast is triggering, difficult, or painful to the point of interfering with your mother infant bond….give her some formula instead;)!

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Mariah permalink
    January 28, 2016 6:50 pm

    Your post was great. However, I had to re-read this line 3 times just to make sure I understood correctly what you said, “But even without any of these psychological triggers at play, some women just find breastfeeding physically demanding and expensive.”.

    And this is my, rather true and completely realistic, opinion..;
    PHYSICALLY DEMANDING: Yes, absolutely! You want to give up because of your exhaustion. But think of your baby: you made him/her, so feed him/her with everything you have already been through sickwise to boost their immunity.
    EXPENSIVE: Huh? Sure, breastpumps and classes may require some money BUT they aren’t necessary. FORMULA requires money, and lots at that! Breat pumps are conveinient for times away from baby, whether it be for work or a babysitter; which yes with that, you must buy bags and bottles to feed–just what you put inside the bottles is FREE! Plus, nowadays most insurances cover all or most of the cost of thee breast pump.

    All in all. Don’t stress and give best feeding a chance! If you are having problems at first, don’t give up–it takes time and will get better! However, if it truly doesn’t then go the formula route–just get that baby fed! 🙂

    P.S. If you’re having trouble with latching, consider buying a nipple shield! It saved me.

    Good luck to all future moms. ❤

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