We often talk about the physical side of breastfeeding – the pain caused by an incorrect latch, the different holds, the hours stuck on the sofa, the exhaustion… But for many women who choose to breastfeed, the mental toll can feel like something they’re totally unprepared for.
“So many new parents start to breastfeed utterly drained, physically and emotionally, after a long labour and delivery,” says Alison Lovett, founder of breastfeeding support service, The Latch (thelatch.co.uk). “My clients frequently tell me their antenatal classes did not warn them adequately about the marathon breastfeeding can turn out to be.”
The mental toll
A marathon it certainly is – Lovett estimates newborns feed anywhere from eight to 24 times a day (depending on the size of the baby and the storage capacity of the mother’s breasts), for 10 to 60 minutes at a time. “Babies may also need extra drinks and periods of comfort at the breast, particularly when the weather is hot or they are unwell,” she says.
Cluster feeding (a lot of short feeds over a few hours, or sometimes constantly) is common anytime in the first three or four months. It can all be seriously overwhelming, especially if you’re not expecting it to be so intense. Plus, there’s no knowing exactly when it might get less frequent or take less time – and psychologically, this can be tough to deal with.
“Many women feel overwhelmed by their baby’s demands – especially if they’re also getting little sleep,” suggests BACP-registered counsellor Cate Campbell. “[Feeling] they are being taken over; that their body is no longer their own. They may feel guilty about the resentment they’re experiencing, which doesn’t help them to relax and enjoy the experience, nor allow them to realise their feelings are natural.”
Lovett says new mums need real “emotional and physical stamina” for the first six weeks after the birth (the time it’s generally accepted for breastfeeding to become established). “It can come as a massive shock, and is without doubt one of the main reasons new mums don’t manage to breastfeed for as long as they had hoped and planned – they simply don’t have the stamina and motivation to keep going.”
So, if you do want to breastfeed, how do you make sure you have enough emotional stamina?
Preparation during pregnancy, particularly first pregnancies, can often be spent mostly thinking about the birth – and understandably so, it can be daunting – but thinking about how you’re going to feed and learning what to do can take a bit of a back seat.
“New mums are well advised to spend time during pregnancy identifying sources of help and support, which they may need if/when they later hit difficulties with breastfeeding,” says Lovett.
As well as reading up and watching tutorials, your best source of knowledge may be friends who have recently gone through breastfeeding. Although everyone’s experience is different, it could help you gain a realistic picture of what’s coming – and how you might best cope.
Pre-empting difficulties can help avoid some of the “mental stress and exhaustion” that is so often experienced, suggests Lovett.
A support system will be a huge help. Lovett says: “The support network is a major factor in achieving successful breastfeeding, and I think this is sorely lacking in the Western world, where a lot of socialisation is done over social media, and where the practice is to share an impression that ‘everything in the garden is lovely’ – whilst in reality, a new mum may be struggling, feeling very isolated, and needing support.”
It’s notable, she says, that in cultures where breastfeeding rates are high, “It’s often customary for new mothers to be supported by other female friends and relatives, who mentor the new mother to pass on their skills and experiences during the first weeks after delivery.
“Partners, too, need to understand the important role that they have in giving encouragement and practical help – ensuring the new mother eats and drinks well, is able to sleep when feeding allows, gets an opportunity to go for a walk or a swim.”
Try not to be hard on yourself
“Trust yourself and your body,” stresses Campbell – and remember to be kind to yourself, regardless of how things are going.
“Even before having the baby, it can be helpful to make a little video or write a note reminding yourself that everyone is different, and it’s normal to feel a huge variety of emotions about breastfeeding. Talk about how you’re feeling with whoever seems to understand – this may be a friend, partner, relative or health professional.”
You might be feeling guilty if you’re not able to feed as often or for as long as is recommended, but Lovett says: “One important message is any breastfeeding you have been able to provide is better than none at all.”
Various services (like The Latch) offer one-to-one video support through the early weeks, there are local council breastfeeding support groups, and organisations like NCT (nct.org.uk) and La Leche League (laleche.org.uk) have helplines.
Lovett recommends writing down anything you learn and saving it for later, “In case of crisis, because when you’re utterly exhausted by a crying baby, your hormones are all over the place and you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s surprisingly difficult to focus on finding a source of help”.
Many women find deciding to stop breastfeeding – whatever the age of their baby – a highly emotional time, often fraught with complex, and sometimes conflicting, emotions.
“This is made worse by our bodies making less of the hormone oxytocin, a hormone that makes us feel happy and well,” explains GP and mental health coach, Dr Hana Patel (drhanapatel.com).
Oxytocin “decreases with weaning, meaning that women can feel a sense of loss and sadness. The symptoms should pass within a few weeks, but if you still feel emotionally low, speak to a health visitor or GP.”
Campbell adds: “Hopefully, parent and baby will stop breastfeeding when the time feels right for them, and not because someone else tells them it’s time. Even so, it can be hard to contemplate the last feed. It can be useful to gradually bring in an alternative behaviour to replace that emotional/comforting element of breastfeeding – [such as] listening to a story at night with a cuddle.
“Equally, parents should not feel bad if they can’t wait to stop. We’re all different.”