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Written by: Wendy, IBCLC
“My son couldn’t latch properly, I was over producing, in a ton of pain 24/7 and after a month I wanted to stop. The guilting I received from everyone was horrible.”
“I had to push hard and be very vocal to not be bullied by nurses and lactation consultants in the hospital. No one wanted to believe that I knew my body.”
“When I couldn’t produce enough milk for my baby, I felt like a failure. I couldn’t be around other breastfeeding moms for months without feeling triggered.”
“I grew up feeling certain I would breastfeed and thinking that breastfeeding meant being a good mom. Now, I have to supplement my baby with formula and I feel like I’ve failed at being a mom.”
“No one mentioned that sometimes you can try your hardest and physically can’t breastfeed. The feelings linger, the deep sorrow associated with feeding my newborn, even ten years later.”
These are just some of the ways that the mothers I spoke to described their breastfeeding trauma. As an IBCLC whose job is to help and encourage moms to breastfeed, I can tell you that trauma surrounding breastfeeding—even for mothers who ended up breastfeeding successfully in the long run—is real and something that isn't addressed nearly enough.
In my years working with new moms, I've helped many who experienced feelings of guilt, pain, anger, sadness, and loss about how their breastfeeding experience went. Sometimes these feelings were so intense that PTSD-like symptoms emerged surrounding breastfeeding—hypervigilance, flashbacks, nightmares, etc. Some of these moms developed postpartum mood disorders (such as postpartum depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD) and cited breastfeeding trauma as a potential cause.
Breastfeeding trauma is a real thing (ask any mother who has experienced it!), but there is no formal definition in breastfeeding or mental health literature. In a nutshell, though, any difficult or adverse experience can trigger a trauma reaction in a person, and breastfeeding is no exception.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma is defined as "any disturbing experience that results in significant fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on a person's attitudes, behavior, and other aspects of functioning."
As such, if you had an intensely difficult breastfeeding experience that left long-lasting emotional scars, you may have experienced breastfeeding trauma.
Unfortunately, there is very little research on the subject of breastfeeding trauma. Dr. Amy Brown has written a book on the subject ("Why Breastfeeding Grief and Trauma Matter") in which she shares interviews with hundreds of women about their traumatic breastfeeding experiences. There is research about the link between difficult breastfeeding experiences and postpartum depression, but the research hasn't been consistent and most of the studies have been small.
Hopefully, this is an area where more research will be done in the coming years. There is certainly a need for it.
What Are The Symptoms? In a presentation posted on UNICEF and available for viewing through Gold Learning: Online Continuing Education, Dr. Amy Brown shared some of the feelings mothers who had experienced breastfeeding trauma experienced.
Feelings specific to trauma—nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, and avoiding triggering events or experiences—were also reported by these moms. Some moms described feeling upset when they saw other moms happily breastfeeding, or when they read breastfeeding articles or social media posts, or when they spoke to medical professionals who minimized or dismissed their feelings. Many moms actively avoided situations where they'd encounter breastfeeding, either in person or online.
In my experience as an IBCLC, the most important thing to do to help mothers process their breastfeeding trauma is to address it and validate their feelings. Yes, my job is to help moms reach their breastfeeding goals. But when breastfeeding doesn't work out as a mom hoped it would, my job is also to help them process that, to teach them that each mom gets to define her own success when it comes to feeding her baby, and that breastfeeding successfully is not the only way to being a good mom or grow a healthy family.
Here are some other ideas for moms who are processing breastfeeding trauma:
If thinking about, seeing, or discussing breastfeeding feels scary or triggering for you, it’s okay to avoid it until you feel better. Really. The same goes for friends or family members who aren’t compassionate about what you are going through. Set whatever boundaries help you feel okay as you process your trauma.
When you are ready, talking through the trauma is one of the best ways to heal. Finding a therapist or counselor who understands postpartum issues and trauma can be helpful. Connecting with other friends who have been through the same thing can help too.
When possible, avoid online forums, and certainly online article comment sections! Some of these can be safe spaces, and if you’ve found one like that, go for it. But so much of the time, online forums only pit parents against one another. So much nuance is often lost in online exchanges, and people are apt to express their opinions without much thought for the reader on the other end.
If you had a traumatic breastfeeding experience, you have every right to be angry. But sometimes, anger about these things gets (understandably) misdirected. Many breastfeeding moms who experience trauma will blame themselves or their bodies for not working the right way. Or they will blame friends and family members who put unfair pressure on them. It can be helpful to understand that breastfeeding not going the way you wanted it to—or the pressure to breastfeed when you didn't want to do it—comes from a basic failure in our society to properly support new moms, give them good information, and lift up and acknowledge their feelings.
Breastfeeding trauma isn't just experienced by moms who wanted to breastfeed but couldn't. It's not just experienced by moms who never wanted to breastfeed in the first place but felt pressure to do so. There are so many different and varied ways that moms experience trauma related to breastfeeding, even moms who went on to breastfeed their babies for years. And breastfeeding trauma can be long-lasting: parents whose kids are grown still feel triggered when they remember their early breastfeeding traumas.
It's also important to understand that breastfeeding trauma can play out in many different ways, from shock, numbness, rage, "fight-or-flight" symptoms, and feeling withdrawn and sad. The most important thing to remember is that whatever emotions breastfeeding elicits, your feelings are real, you have every right to experience them just as you do, and there is nothing wrong with you for feeling whatever you feel about your breastfeeding experience.
I hope that you find someone compassionate and non-judgmental to share your feelings with and that you experience peace and healing—however that looks for you.
Wendy (she/her) is a writer, editor, and IBCLC. She writes frequently about breastfeeding, parenting, and health. She believes in the power of providing families with smart, evidence-based information so they can make decisions that work best for their family. Find her at www.wendywisner.com.