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When Breastfeeding Feels Broken

Mom and Baby

As postpartum doulas, we aim to support our clients and their families in whatever capacity is most helpful. Oftentimes breastfeeding is of utmost importance to these families, so naturally we spend a lot of our time working alongside parents to help them achieve their goals. While we do see a lot of success, this success usually happens in contexts that are not ideal, and with a lot of troubleshooting along the way. We find many mothers working through difficult and traumatic birth experiences, feeling overwhelmed by so many (often conflicting) opinions, or experiencing pain, all while trying to maintain an around the clock demand to feed the baby.

It’s not the picture one sees in her mind as she imagines what breastfeeding will be like: a woman with the most serene looking face, showered and clean with soft hair draping over her shoulder while she breastfeeds, gazing lovingly at her baby in the morning light. This is what many women hope breastfeeding will be, this natural extension of pregnancy where the body just knows what it needs to do to provide.

While it’s true that our postpartum bodies have many systems in place to continue to provide for babies out of the womb, we live in a culture that largely undermines many of these innate physiological intuitions. Birth has been medicalized, rest in the postpartum has been thrown out in lieu of an expectation to “bounce back” quickly, the pressure to breastfeed at all costs is rampant, and time for families to bond with their babies is cut short with parental leave that separates support from mothers and mothers from babies long before they are ready. Even in some of the most ideal scenarios, we still fall drastically short in providing mothers with the support, information, and time needed to create an environment that is conducive to breastfeeding.

When this is the context in which breastfeeding begins, it’s not surprising to see so many fall short of their personal breastfeeding goals. When that happens, when breastfeeding feels broken, many women blame themselves. Shame and guilt rise with each time she sees her baby being fed by a bottle. The pressure to breastfeed can cause her to go to great lengths to achieve it, often at the cost of her own healing. Experiencing other mothers breastfeeding their children can exacerbate feelings of failure and grief she is already living. She loses what little sleep she was getting with anxious thoughts and deep disappointment.

This describes a situation of deep loneliness, of grief that is just as hard to legitimize as it is to verbalize. When mothers are in this place, they need to be heard. Their feelings and experiences, even when hormonally affected, are legitimate and need to be affirmed. They will need to have the space to process in whatever way feels true for them. In order for this to happen, support is needed to tend to all the basic daily needs. Offer to make a meal, wash the dishes, do the laundry, shovel some snow. For a new mother, having to either do or manage the doing of all of these things can distract from processing grief and can amplify anxiety. Gather resources for emotional support: new mother groups, therapists, La Leche League groups, and your presence as a safe space. Show her that you see her, and that she can be whatever she is around you. Walk with her and know that in doing so you are paving the way for her healing.

If you are in the midst of grief around breastfeeding, we want you to know that you are not alone. Your feelings are legitimate and need to be heard. There is support and there is a way through.

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