Most who’ve experienced it would agree, breastfeeding is hard. Especially in the early weeks and months when it can feel pretty relentless. I remember sitting and crying about how difficult it felt on multiple occasions and often wondered whether I should just throw in the towel! There’s a lot of pressure and responsibility around feeding, and this can be very overwhelming.
Luckily, there are numerous ways to feed and nourish your baby including formula feeding, combination feeding and exclusive pump feeding. Despite the alternatives, being unable to breastfeed can have a huge impact on your mental health. You may know and understand that ‘fed is best’, but if you envisioned yourself breastfeeding your baby and can’t, it can lead to some difficult emotions.
Reasons Someone Might Be Unable to Breastfeed
There are several reasons someone might be unable to breastfeed. There can be physical barriers, medical barriers, social and psychological.
Unfortunately, many healthcare professionals do not receive adequate training in breastfeeding. As a result, they’re unable to help with positioning and attachment of the baby at the breast which can lead to problems. For example, a midwife told me to keep my son on one breast for as long as possible so he would get the ‘fatty milk’. However, when I saw a lactation consultant, I discovered this was incorrect. I was better off swapping between breasts often to increase my son’s milk intake overall.
If training has been provided, funding cuts and staff shortages mean it’s not always easy to access this help. In hospital, midwives are so busy there’s rarely enough time for them to gently teach new mothers how to breastfeed. Mothers who have been discharged from hospital and are experiencing pain and discomfort when breastfeeding often have to wait for a midwife or health visitor to come and support them. It’s not the midwives and health visitors who are at fault – it’s the system as a whole and how broken it is.
As I mentioned, when I encountered issues on my feeding journey, I was lucky enough to be able to afford a lactation consultant who was an expert in breastfeeding. Lots of families out there do not have the funds to pay privately for this and it isn’t always offered for free on the NHS. Many are being failed by the system, but they internalise their inability to breastfeed and believe it’s them that’s at fault.
Lack of support from friends or family members can also impact your breastfeeding journey. Those without any first-hand experience of breastfeeding may be more likely to hold stigmatised views. I remember receiving comments about my son being ‘more clingy’ because he was breastfed. I also had to contend with people saying things like ‘he can’t be hungry again’ and ‘he’s only just fed’. Dealing with other people’s opinions and perceptions on top of everything else can be draining.
For similar reasons, the need to breastfeed in public can be a barrier for some. I remember feeling really nervous the first time I needed to feed my son while out and about. I was worried I’d receive negative looks or comments. Fortunately, I didn’t, but my fears weren’t completely unfounded. There are still some people who show disgust or unease around a baby or child being breastfed in public. It’s not uncommon for mothers to receive criticism from people who don’t approve. If you’re someone who is bold and confident, this may not be an issue, but a shy, sensitive new mum may struggle to navigate this sort of confrontation. As a result, they may avoid going out in case the need to breastfeed should arise. In some cases, it can be such a problem they decide to stop breastfeeding altogether.
The Mental and Emotional Impact
Ending your breastfeeding journey early or being unable to start at all can lead to thoughts such as ‘it’s my fault’, ‘I’m failing my child’ and ‘my body is failing me and my baby’. You may ask questions like ‘why can’t I get it right’, ‘is my baby feeding enough’ and ‘why does it look so easy for other mums when I’m finding it really difficult’. You may also struggle with the apparent lack of control you have over the situation.
In terms of emotions, you may experience guilt, shame, grief, sadness, anger, frustration and anxiety. This might look like:
- Guilt around feelings of personal responsibility.
- Shame around feelings of failure and what other people might think if you don’t breastfeed.
- Grief around the loss of a feeding journey or new motherhood not looking as you’d envisioned.
- Sadness and frustration around the lack of support or being given different information by different healthcare professionals.
- Anxiety around not knowing what to do for the best.
How to Look After Yourself If You're Unable to Breastfeed
If you’re having problems breastfeeding and want to continue, try and find a local breastfeeding support group. These are often free, and they should be able to offer guidance and signpost relevant help.
Wherever you are on your feeding journey, talk to someone who can understand and validate your feelings. This may be a friend, a family member or someone who has been through similar. Sometimes, we just need our feelings to be heard and for someone else to make space for them.
Be kind and compassionate towards yourself. Many mums try so hard to continue to breastfeed but are failed by a broken system and a lack of support. In an ideal world, we would have significantly more support and more experienced professionals to advise and guide us on this journey. Remember, you’re doing your best under extremely difficult circumstances.
Finally, I would also recommend therapy for any unresolved feelings and negative self-beliefs around breastfeeding that do not improve over time. Therapy can help you come to terms and make peace with your breastfeeding journey. If you’re interested in working with me, you can book a free consultation here. I also share lots of tips and advice via Instagram.
Why Breastfeeding Grief and Trauma Matter by Amy Brown