I have been struggling with something since my son was born and it isn’t easy for me to admit because I am a strong advocate for breastfeeding but I need to admit it: nursing isn’t pleasurable for me. Not in the way most healthy mothers feel when they are nursing their young. Often when I nurse I am flooded with feelings of aversion, anxiety, and irritability which is the complete opposite to what should ideally be happening hormone-wise. Instead of getting a nursing high when I feed my son, as the oxytocin floods my body, I actually feel like pulling away and running out of the room. It strikes a very uncomfortable nerve when I breastfeed which makes the experience less than pleasant at times. As you can well imagine, this makes any nursing issues doubly depressing. So how is it that I managed to breastfeed my son exclusively for seven months and continue to nurse a toddler-aged child? The honest answer: sheer will.
I knew something was up after my son was born and I never felt the ecstasy breastfeeding is supposed to impart to new mothers but I figured that it was due to the instrumental birth we endured. Over the next few months we adapted despite our difficult start and we thrived but I still did not love it as I thought I would. I loved holding my son and giving him the best of me and seeing him grow healthy and strong due to it, but it was not always a pleasant experience for me physically or emotionally. I was often overwhelmed by the potency of those feelings of aversion and irritability and this scared me but I was determined to continue nursing my son as long as I could endure it without any negative effects to me or my son. I essentially swallowed my negative feelings as best I could so that my son could benefit from my milk. However I kept feeling guilty of those strong feelings, especially the anger at my little baby who only wanted to feed so I started looking into it and realised that I was not the only one. Not only do many women experience this, but it has a clinical name: Dysphoric milk ejection reflex (D-MER). I didn’t feel so alone after this and instead came up with ways to counter it as best as I could.
There are a couple things I remind myself when I am feeling particularly irritated that strengthens my resolve to follow through with my breastfeeding goals and I am going to list them here for you:
1. I am designed for this. I tell myself that there is NOTHING even closely nutritious for my baby than my species-designed breastmilk despite what for-profit companies may otherwise imply. I was designed to nourish my offspring and nothing else any man has created as a substitute will do. It may seem harsh to tell yourself this, but it sure makes you try harder on those tough days!
2. Breathe it out. I’ve learned to help calm myself by focusing on my breathing patterns and meditating while nursing to avoid escalating those difficult feelings. Sometimes I need to hum a song which my son enjoys as well to distract myself further.
3. Take a break. There are times that I feel myself losing control and instead of unleashing that negativity on my son, I simply end the nursing session early. He does fuss but at his age (14 months) he quickly finds something else to do while I take a time out. It is far better to take a break and resume once under control than become snippy and lash out.
4. This too shall pass. Our nursing relationship is relatively short compared to the rest of our lives together as a family. I can endure this discomfort now so that they will benefit from it both physically and emotionally for the rest of their lives. I am strong enough to put my comfort levels aside for this and find ways to cope in the meantime.
5. A dummie is better than a bummy mummy. My body is the muse for all other comfort items on the market. When I breastfeed my child I am not only feeding them the best, but I am also providing them with the best source of comfort: a loving human being. However, there are times, especially within the first few weeks when nursing is CONSTANT, that using a soother is a blessing. If you are feeling completely touched-out and on edge and are considering having your husband run to the store for some formula, use a soother instead while you get yourself together. When my son was two months old, I was feeling overwhelmed by all the comfort nursing he was doing and so I gave him a soother to suck on while I took a breather to get control of my feelings. I always held him in a nursing position while doing so, to mimic his natural nursing routine and limited my use of it to when I REALLY needed it because non-nutritive sucking is important for milk production. This allowed me to keep sane while breastfeeding exclusively especially.
6. Set boundaries. When your child is older, you can also set boundaries for when you will allow nursing (like only during the day or before naps) or discourage nursing if they are starting to play at the breast or pop on and off repeatedly. My son at fourteen months likes to goof around while nursing when he is not actually hungry or needs to be soothed. He just likes to play with them and this I discourage if I am feeling touched-out. When he was an infant I would find other ways to cope because he was not yet developmentally ready to be limited at the breast, but once ready I set appropriate boundaries.
7. Never give up on a bad day. It always seems worse when you are in the thick of an unpleasant experience but when you are in the grips of strong emotions, it is best not to make any hasty decisions. It does get better, or more manageable if you give yourself the chance. If you are seriously considering supplementation or weaning depending on your baby’s age, look at all your options with a cool head. There are more choices than relying on formula to feed your child: check out Human Milk 4 Human Babies for example.
It makes me sad when I think about all the women who have perhaps experienced this as well who felt so discouraged that they gave up on their breastfeeding goals. I was raised on the idea that ‘when there is a will, there is way’ and this helped me considerably in keeping my own goals in perspective when the going was tough. I was blessed to have a supportive husband who did everything he could to make me more comfortable while nursing to help me stay sane. I also have many awesome nursing friends whose shared experiences made me understand that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. I wish that all the other women out there who are struggling with nursing to find the strength to continue on regardless if they are as supported as I was. It is worth every effort, I promise!