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Coping with the emotional challenges of breastfeeding

By The Health News Team | August 24, 2023
Mother breastfeeding her baby

An expectant parent planning to breastfeed might imagine having a healthy milk supply, their baby easily latching, and having a peaceful bonding experience for both. But fast forward to the early postpartum days and weeks, and the reality might look and feel much different.

There might be pain, a low milk supply, feelings of shame, isolation, resentment and more. It isn’t the breastfeeding journey most parents expect.

“Most women I hear from don’t anticipate problems with breastfeeding or their milk supply,” says Karen Anderson, clinical supervisor of social work at Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women & Newborns. “So, when they do, they end up having feelings of shame and think they’re failing at something that is perceived as easy and instinctual.”

Anderson works with many postpartum parents who need support and reminds them these feelings are not uncommon. In fact, a woman’s hormones after delivery can play a major role in their breastfeeding experience.

“A woman can have a dip in mood from changes in the hormones responsible for lactation, called oxytocin and prolactin,” says Mary Hoffman, an advanced clinician lactation consultant at Sharp Mary Birch. “Oxytocin triggers the letdown reflex that moves the milk, and prolactin promotes milk production.”

Supporting yourself and accepting support from others

Both experts agree that the most important thing a breastfeeding parent can do is give themselves grace and self-compassion. The next steps include:

Get personalized lactation advice.

Meeting with a lactation expert can help ease your mind when it comes to breastfeeding challenges. Sharp Mary Birch has lactation experts available seven days a week. Additionally, the specialty hospital offers the opportunity to check your baby’s milk intake by weighing them before and after a feeding.

Attend a breastfeeding support group.

Sharp offers free breastfeeding support groups to help new parents and their babies learn from others about their successes and challenges with breastfeeding.

Pursue counseling for maternal mental health.

For those struggling with the challenges of breastfeeding, a therapist specializing in maternal mental health can help, especially if a parent is living with a perinatal mood disorder (PMAD).

Lastly, Hoffman and Anderson emphasize that support from a partner or other loved ones can make all the difference.

“The best thing a partner can do is let mom know they recognize how hard breastfeeding can be and to acknowledge what she is doing,” says Anderson, “If it becomes apparent that she is struggling, open up the conversation about introducing formula and let her know her physical and mental health is the most important thing for the entire family.”

Anderson adds that a healthy mom and baby is the goal regardless of how nutrition is provided. “Prioritize your health as much as the baby’s,” says Anderson. “Whether you breastfeed or give formula shouldn’t be part of how you define yourself as a parent.”

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