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Breastfeeding PTSD

Breastfeeding PTSD

By Amalah

Dear Amy: 

I am 10 weeks pregnant with my second child, and I am terrified of attempting to breastfeed again. My older child is 7 months old and we ended our breastfeeding relationship at 7 weeks. I don’t in the end even know what the problem was, but I know it wasn’t her – every person that ever saw her breastfeed said she had an amazing latch. She also cluster fed like a fiend whenever she hit a growth spurt, which I happily indulged. Nevertheless, we couldn’t cut it. I don’t know if it was a family history of undersupply (my mom tried to breastfeed each of us and stopped each time around 6 weeks), a slow flow, my nipple on my left which looked a little flat, a suspected case of thrush, and/ or my lack of reaching out for support whenever I suspected there was a problem (see: thrush – I have no idea if I actually had it).

In the end, however, I think it all stemmed down to my utter anxiety about breastfeeding and my inability to relax. I suspect that inhibited let down tremendously…and, I think it stopped me from breastfeeding on demand enough – I started watching the clock, trying to put off feedings as much as possible. I hated every second of breastfeeding – the first few days when she’d fall asleep the moment she hit the breast and we had to resort to extraordinary measures to wake her, the pain I had every time she latched for the entire 7 weeks (which probably speaks to some sort of problem! The few times it was pain free I was like, “huh, this is nice”); the stress of nursing in public; pumping less than 1/2 an ounce each time; fighting with her as she popped off, cried, popped back on, cried, popped off; the hour long nursing sessions; not knowing if she was getting enough and strongly suspecting she wasn’t, and finally, the terrifying trip to the doctor’s office at 7 weeks with a listless unhappy baby who hadn’t pooped in 7 days where I found out she weight 7 pounds 10 ounces..the same she weighed at her one month checkup.  

Honestly, the two happiest moments of our breastfeeding relationship were 1) the first time we supplemented based on doctor’s orders. She nursed on me, fell asleep, and I woke her back up with 2 ounces of formula. She chugged it down sighed happily, and grinned and 2) the day I realized she had gone on a nursing strike. Yes, the nursing strike. The thing that breaks mothers’ hearts, prompting tearful calls to La Leche League. My reaction was, “Thank GOD. It’s time to stop”. And in that instant every depression and anxiety symptom I had since she was born disappeared.

So, that’s the opus. I’ve read up on what you did with Ezra to up your supply and I will be following those instructions to the letter. But what about the anxiety and fear? Do you think that if I take measures to up my supply, and see things calmly as a second time mom should (ie, nursing in public isn’t a big deal, a little formula won’t kill your baby, etc) that things will be okay, even if breastfeeding fails again? Or by reading this do you think I have serious issues that I need to talk through with a professional (ex: be on the lookout for PPD/PPA and take BF friendly meds the moment I suspect a problem?) As you can see, this isn’t just about breastfeeding – if I fail, the new baby goes on formula…been there, done that. It’s not the end of the world. It’s about those emotions…my first 7 weeks as a mom were scary, and I wasn’t bonding with my daughter at all. I don’t even think I liked her. So if there’s an issue there – who the heck do I talk to? The doctors in my OB/GYN practice aren’t that great about postpartum mental issues. I have friends who are LCs (who I will actually be using as breastfeeding resources this time around..sheesh!) but they aren’t anxiety counselors! Do I actually need to find a therapist? Or, again, will this be a problem that will resolve itself if I just take control of breastfeeding and supply from the beginning?

I have said — repeatedly — that there is no amount of money anyone could pay me to go back to nursing a first baby. It was and still is the thing I found to be the most stressful and anxiety/angst-ridden of any of my new-baby/postpartum experiences.  In fact, breastfeeding Noah probably ranks pretty high in my top five list of stressful/anxiety/angst-ridden PARENTING experiences, perhaps second only to having him diagnosed with special needs. I had built breastfeeding up in my head to such a degree that I really was measuring my success as a mother with it, and when Noah’s weight plummeted and he went on nursing strikes and my nipples bled and we got thrush and my supply was crappy and I wanted to hide from him at feeding times because I was afraid it would hurt physically or he’d reject me and it would hurt emotionally…well, goodness, I felt like a big fat failure.

But I wasn’t. Neither were you. I could spend a lot of time rehashing the experience and figuring out every “mistake” I made or “problem” that could have been solved — like you seem to be doing right now, and shifting all the blame onto yourself, painstakingly listing every thing you think you did “wrong” — but seriously, it’s just not worth it. It’s done. It’s over. Your daughter got colostrum and several weeks of breastmilk and then you did what you had to do and give her formula to get her weight up and for you to pull yourself out of a bad mental place. There is no shame with ANY OF THAT. Begone, shame!

When I was pregnant with Ezra and knew I planned to try again, I did my research on supply issues and well, that was about it. I definitely found comfort in the fact that 1) I was better educated about breastfeeding in general, thanks to my 200-momblogs-a-day reading habit, 2) I’d learned that damaged breast tissue and milk ducts can naturally heal themselves with each subsequent pregnancy and nursing experience, and 3) breastfeeding is ALWAYS a two-way street and different with every baby. But that’s as far as I let myself obsess or “plan” for breastfeeding. I bought nursing essentials AND bottles and a container of formula. I told myself I would give breastfeeding a shot but if it didn’t work, that was okay too. And then I pretty much refused to let myself think about it any more for the duration of the pregnancy. (Easier said than done, I know. More on that in a bit.)

And nursing Ezra was a completely different experience from day one. I was calmer. Though I desperately wanted breastfeeding to work, it was just…obvious that something was different. I don’t know how much of it was me and how much of it was that Ezra was not Noah, but…it was so, so much easier. Even figuring out early on that Ezra was tongue tied barely rattled me. Oh! We can fix that. No biggie. I popped supplements and tea and got on the pump — something I HATED with a PASSION the first time around, finding it kind of horrifying and weird because I was so uncomfortable with the process — and was just…better with it. Yep. Milk comes out of boobs. I wasn’t self-conscious about leaking on my husband or nursing in public. Breastfeeding actually felt as natural as you’re told it is — something I’m not sure I ever really managed to feel with Noah.

And Ike? Well, once again I told myself we’d do our best. I’d do my part and see if he was willing to do his. And it worked out great. Pumping hasn’t been quite as successful as I’d like — I can’t quite manage to build up a decent stash and am usually only able to pump a couple ounces at a time — but whatever. If I need to be away from him and miss a feeding, he drinks the occasional bottle of formula and that’s okay too. He’s a happy, healthy growing baby and he has a happy, healthy, totally-mostly-sane mama.

If you believe that your anxiety about breastfeeding is NOT something you can control for the duration of your pregnancy — if it seems to be an intrusive, daily stressor that doesn’t fade at all as you enter the second trimester — then I see no harm in finding someone to talk to. Someone who can put your fears of failing (at breastfeeding, bonding, being a mother of two, etc.) in perspective and give you some tools to cope with those fears. Or at least, someone you can add to your speed dial in case of a postpartum PPD/anxiety emergency, so you can feel secure knowing that you have a place to turn this time. (How awful that there are still OB practices that don’t focus on postpartum mental care! Talk about SHEESH. If they aren’t your only option, remember it’s totally okay to shop around at any point during your pregnancy.)

It’s possible that things are coming to a head for you because you’re in the thick of first trimester hormone shifts and you may be able to simply take a deep breath and a c’est la vie attitude in a couple more weeks. If not, talk to someone. No shame. Look up a La Leche League chapter in your area and talk to someone there, or any of your LC friends about the feelings you’re writing about. (Obviously you’ll want to find an LC who can make you feel BETTER about sticking things out for seven weeks instead of piling on more guilt or “you should have done X, Y or Z instead” judge-y suggestions. You want someone who will support your “I’ll do my best but am not going to kill myself trying” approach rather than a hardcore anti-formula zealot. Luckily I’ve mostly encountered the first kind.)

Success at breastfeeding does not measure your success at motherhood. I think it’s awesome that you’re willing to try it again! Really, that’s kick-ass of you to face your fears and anxiety and get it all dealt with. And I want to stress again that nursing my subsequent babies really was sooooo much easier for sooooo many reasons, and I of course totally hope you have the same awesome experience. But if not, and it doesn’t work, it’s okay. And you know it’s okay.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Cara
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Cara

Reading this, I couldn’t help thinking that being a new Mom is HARD. You’re getting to know this little creature who is constantly demanding things of you, and you’re doing it on little sleep. I think you’re eight it wasn’t all about the breastfeeding. But, it didn’t shout out that you need a professional either. It did sound like you need a… mentor, maybe I’ll call it. Not friends who are in the same place, but an older woman whose ‘been there done that.’. For me, it was my mother. For my friend, it was an older friend from church.… Read more »

heather
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heather

I’m 5 weeks into nursing my second baby and I will also say that it’s a different experience with different kids. With my daughter (baby #1) I literally felt like I was fighting her for the entire first few months of nursing. There were lots of tears, a nipple shield, leaking milk everywhere, and a lot of screaming (usually from her). With my son (baby #2) it’s soooooo much easier. And even when it’s a bit challenging I have the ability to just shrug and not feel like the problem is related to my personal inabilities as a mother. I… Read more »

Susan
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Susan

I kept reading the letter thinking “in a second she’ll mention that she’s considered *not* breastfeeding her second child at all, or just breastfeeding for a couple of weeks and then allowing herself to stop”… and then I kept reading the advice and thinking “at some point Amalah will say, ‘You have permission not to breastfeed at all! That’s an okay choice to make, especially if even thinking about it makes you this miserable! It sounds like you are really determined to overcome this fear for your second child, and I want to help you, but you should know that… Read more »

kariweber
Guest
kariweber

I like what Cara said above… it really is hard to not have someone that can help you through this. When I had my first, I was the first of my generation in my family to have kids, and it just seemed like no one had any good advice. None of my “elders” like my mom or my mother in law nursed, or had a longer-than-two-weeks-before-the-evil-breastmilk-was-replaced-with-formula experience… But! I sought out help in the way of LC’s and the intrawebs. In fact, that is when I found Amy! It was a godsend to talk to others about the stress. I… Read more »

EG1972
Guest
EG1972

Nursing baby #2 as I type this. I also found things…easier this time around, being more relaxed in general and more forgiving of myself. You can do it! And if not, that’s ok too – baby wants a full belly, no matter where it came from.

Erin
Guest

Oh, how I can relate! I am pregnant with my second and just the other night I told my husband that I am more nervous about breastfeeding again than I am about attempting another non-med birth. WAY more. With my son I endured over 4 weeks of excruciating pain and emotional distress before breaking down and shelling out $100 to see a board-certified lactation consultant (note: NOT the same as the ones in the hospital!!). She was AMAZING and not only saved our breastfeeding experience but at the time I rather overdramatically felt like she saved my life. I won’t… Read more »

Angela
Guest
Angela

I was left with a ton of anxiety after the birth of my first baby: I’d had with a rather pushy on-call OB that was not respectful of my wishes and left me terrified that my desires would be totally ignored.  I changed practices and was with a great group of midwives for my second pregnancy, but still couldn’t talk to them about my first birth without breaking down in tears.  One of the midwives strongly encouraged me to talk to someone, and that time with the psychologist made a huge difference in my delivery experience.  The psychologist I saw… Read more »

Sarah
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Sarah

I had a horrible experience with my first – in fact he never did latch, and i pumped exclusively for 4 months until we switched to formula. My second is 8 weeks old, and things are working out for us this time. We had to use a nipple shield for the first 4 weeks before he learned to latch without it, but now things are going great. I think one of the biggest pluses about baby #2 is that i got through all the guilt and worked through everything with baby #1. I was prepared for it not to work,… Read more »

Melissa
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Melissa

Thanks for commenting on this.  My little one is only a few months old, so I’m not quite ready to stress about the second baby yet, but the guilt and overwhelming OBSESSION I had with sticking with breastfeeding is still with me.  My son latched wonderfully, my nipples spewed milk, my baby grew like crazy, BUT I was in so much pain every time he nursed.  I would cry at night because of the pain.  I would endlessly read blogs and tips and support comments.   My poor boyfriend listened to my breastfeeding obsession; I became a lay expert.  I… Read more »

Chayary
Guest
Chayary

It’s interesting, I got on to comment with a supportive comment about nursing, and things that could maybe help,  I nursed 4kids (still going with #4 at a litttle over a year) and had low supply every darn time and supplemented and lived to see the day. etc. etc.  Also, to mention that I do think it sounds like talking to someone about all the anxiety etc. if it’s still really an emotional response at this point and not a memory, probably will help.   But, reading these comments, and thinking about how many people I know that have had… Read more »

Stephanie
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Stephanie

I think it’s pretty great that you stuck it out for seven weeks with your daughter. I only made it to two weeks with my first. I had many of the same issues you had: the pain, the resentment, the anxiety. I had a very sympathetic pediatrician who asked me at the two week check-up how nursing was going. When I told him I was having a hard time, he said “Don’t torture yourself. It’s hard enough being a mother. Formula is fine.” I felt enormously relieved and started her on formula that same day. And everything else got better,… Read more »

Serendipity
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Serendipity

Hello there…I was shocked to see how much the OP and I have in common. My first is 2 1/2 now but the negative experiences I had with breast feeding still send chills down my spine. I had a non complicated pregnancy and childbirth. I was very much looking forward to bf ing but Didnt know much about it. She had difficulty latching (I now know she is tongue tied) and I would keep trying constantly while in the hospital. I had only my husband with me and we were both completely at a loss as to what we should… Read more »

Kay
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Kay

There’s a great book called “The Pregnancy and Postpartum Anxiety Workbook.” I’m using it right now for my anxiety regarding sleeping issues with my 5 month old. I had no idea that anxiety was so common in pregnant and postpartum women (5-16% will have issues with it). I had it a bit with my first child, but it’s been way worse with the 2nd kid. This is another option if you want to try doing some work on your own. (or in addition to seeing a counselor) I checked it out from my local library.

J
Guest
J

I do have to agree with some of the other commenters that there seems to be this sense of “it’s ok to formula feed because you gave nursing a shot and it didn’t work.” What about it being ok that you bottle feed right from the go because you simply don’t want to nurse whether you tried or not, whether you had a horrible experience with your first or not? In the end, you want a fed baby and if you decide to say “I can’t/won’t risk having the same horrible experience,” THAT is ok.

MR
Guest
MR

I totally agree with Susan. OP, as I was reading your letter, I kept thinking, “So, WHY would you want to try to breastfeeding your second?” I love breastfeeding. I have had my share of difficulties with it, but being able to breastfeed again was probably the thing I looked forward to most when I was pregnant with my second. I even want to become a lactation consultant. I am very pro breastfeeding and think that every woman deserves good support to help them through the rough times. That being said, if you want to try again, that’s awesome! But,… Read more »

Amy
Guest
Amy

You are not alone. No matter what you may hear about how anyone can breastfeed, you are not alone. We are here, and we share your anxiety and pain. We have felt your fear, frustration, and anger. We have been consumed with guilt. And now we are helping each other. I was terrified to nurse my second after a similar experience to yours with my first. I agonized over the decision and had very uncharacteristic anxiety attacks over it. I found the website fearlessformulafeeder.com and it is like therapy to me. It is a pro-breastfeeding site full of moms (and… Read more »

Emily
Guest
Emily

this was nice, thank you.

Jessica
Guest

oh my. this was hard to read, because every single emotion was familiar. my son is now 5 months, and we are still nursing (with under supply; he gets about 1/2 his calories from formula), but holy balls, it was so hard at first. and honestly, some times it’s STILL hard. i, too, had the logical recognition that formula was a fine option and the important thing was feeding my baby (PERIOD), but oh. it still was like someone putting my heart through a wood-chipper, the feeling of dread at feeding time, obsessively trying to figure out how much he… Read more »

irene
Guest
irene

Reading everything, I second the question asked, do you really want to try to nurse the second baby, and if so, why? It’s ok not to do it, you know. If your first one did just fine on formula, no reason to put yourself through the stress, if not doing it means a stronger bond with your baby, and a happier postpartum. It’s hard being a mom as it is, and sounds like you’ll have 2 tiny children, a lot to deal with as it is.  Give yourself the permission not to do it, if you were miserable! Now, this… Read more »

Coll
Guest
Coll

THANK YOU for this post. Reading the original letter I feel like I could have written it – my now 4 month old has been exclusively formula fed since she was 6 weeks old, after a disasterous breastfeeding attempt. During those 4 weeks I did not feel like I was bonding with my daughter (as OP said almost felt like I didn’t like her), I cried every day, felt like a horrible mom…I could go on and on about how unhappy I was. I saw a lactation consultant who was wonderful and actually helped with the decision to stop by… Read more »

Melissa
Guest

I just had to thank you for this post. My number one fear as my husband and I consider trying for Baby #2? Breastfeeding again.Booby PTSD here, big time. Long story shorter, my now healthy, happy 1.5 year old & I had a similar nursing experience to Amalah & her firstborn. After limping along with it for an often miserable near six months, having had to supplement the entire time, with unsupportive LCs who insisted I didn’t have a problem blah blah, we finally switched entirely to formula. I can’t adequately express the relief I felt, but suffice to say… Read more »