Have you heard of breastfeeding trauma? It sounds kind of extreme right? How could something that is natural and instinctive leave us traumatised? But when women struggle to breastfeed, when they don’t have the right support, when they are separated from their babies or stop breastfeeding when they don’t want to, it can cause deep and long lasting psychological effects.
When I meet women who have been through a difficult breastfeeding experience they often show the signs of trauma. They may feel anxious when they think about it. They may experience strong negative emotions when talking about it such as panic, anger or fear. They may not be able to talk or think about it in any detail because the emotions are so strong. These women may find that these feelings are taking over their life or contributing to depression. Sometimes when pregnant again or just thinking about their next baby, they find that these intense emotions are coming up whenever they think about feeding.
So why do we feel breastfeeding issues so deeply? why do we have such a strong connection to the way our babies are fed?
Breastfeeding,like birth, is a mammalian function that ensures the survival of our species. It has been around since long before human beings evolved. It dates back to hundreds of millions of years ago when animals first walked the earth. This kind of blows my mind but also reminds me of how primal our need to breastfeed is. Like in birth, our bodies have evolved some pretty incredible ways to get breastfeeding started.
Hormones: Hormones drive how we feel in pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding. No matter how we birth or how we feed our babies, hormones are there guiding the way. The problem is that sometimes we work against these hormones without even meaning to. Take Oxytocin for example. It has physical functions such as helping the uterus to contract in labour and ejecting breastmilk from the breast. But it also has an emotional side and is known as the love hormone. It’s shy and doesn’t flow easily in times of stress or anxiety, worry or fear. This again is a primal reflex. A birthing or lactating woman was, at one time, vulnerable to predictors and so fear stops it flowing. This in turn slows labour or stops milk from flowing.
In the right conditions, when oxytocin is flowing, Mothers and babies experience the loving and contented feelings caused by the hormone. It aids sleep, and a deep bonding between mother and child.
Reflexes: Babies are born with some great survival reflexes that help them find the breast. They have a walking reflex which can propel them up their mother’s body after birth. The have a rooting reflex that helps them to find the nipple and a suck swallow reflex to help them drink. Whilst in the womb they have been tasting amniotic fluid, which helps them to recognise the smell and taste of colostrum ( Benoist Schaal, 2015).
Physical changes: Nipples darken during pregnancy, which researchers believe, means that newborns can home in on it. It’s known they can clearly focus on a dark spot on a white background.
So with these innate changes occurring in the early days, it’s hardly surprising that when breastfeeding is going wrong that mothers can feel intense feeling of loss, grief sometimes anger and often trauma. It’s hardly surprising that each time they hear someone talk about the wonder of breastfeeding or the magic of breastmilk, that they are intensely triggered as those emotions come flooding back.
It is not unusual to hear grandmothers, even great grandmothers recalling their difficult breastfeeding experiences from decades ago. The pain and grief still strong and still being triggered each time they hear the word breastfeeding.
So what do these Mother’s experiences often have in common? Well almost always that they they didn’t feed for as long as they wanted to. That they weren’t supported by those around them. That they weren’t given the right information that would help them to continue breastfeeding. Perhaps they endured weeks or months of pain, serious illness or separation from their baby.
And yes, sometimes women don’t have enough milk and no matter what they do or how much amazing support they get, they will not be able to make all the milk their baby needs. It happened to me and and I know how painful that can be. But how often do we hear of women being told that every drop of breastmilk they can give is amazing? What if they were supported to breastfeed for as long as they wanted alongside supplementation? If we said to women, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. What do you want? I’m here to help.
What if there was human milk available for any babies who needing supplementation? Would that help ease the pain?
So what can we do?
Education for those who are supporting families with breastfeeding has to be at the top of the list of actions to help reduce the rates of breastfeeding trauma. Good quality, consistent, evidence based breastfeeding education for all who come into contact with lactating women.
And education for expectant parents has to be on that list too. A real conversation about their wants and needs. About the realities of life with a newborn and when and where to get support. About how breastfeeding works and how to know that their baby is getting enough milk. About the how to ensure they care for themselves and how partners can take a huge role in this.
Research by Harries and Brown (2017) found that parenting books with strict, one-size-fits-all routines and unrealistic expectations on babies and parents can have a detrimental affect on mental health. And I would argue that they put breastfeeding at risk too, especially in the early weeks. These expectations aren’t just in books but deeply entrenched in our society and even advocated by the very health professionals that are “supporting” women with breastfeeding. Enormous shifts are to be made if we want to help women to breastfeed for as long as they want to.
In the meantime, lets offer those who are suffering from a traumatic breastfeeding experience a lifeline, a way to heal from their experiences. So that they are not those great grandmothers still reliving their painful experiences in decades to come. So that they can go on the have healthy and happy breastfeeding experiences. So that they can proudly say, I am an amazing parent and I did the absolute best with what I had at that time.
For further information on how the rewind technique can help with trauma issues
Anna will be offering this technique to clients in the coming months.
Benoist Schaal. How amniotic fluid shapes early odor-guided responses to colostrum and milk (and more). Flavor: From Food to Behaviors, Wellbeing and Health, 299, Elsevier Ltd, 460 p., 2016, Woodhead Publishing Series in Food Science, Technology and Nutrition, 978-0-08-100300-8.