9 Subtle Signs That Breastfeeding Is Affecting Your Mental Health
I always intended to breastfeed my babies. I mean, of course I did. After all, "breast is best," or at least that's what everyone told me. In reality, breastfeeding was difficult, I wasn't able to produce enough breast milk, and when things didn't go as planned it became clear that breastfeeding was negatively affecting my mental health in so many ways. In other words, and at least for me: breast isn't best. Not at all.
At first the signs were so subtle I almost overlooked them entirely. I thought I was handling things well. There were so many plans I made about motherhood and breastfeeding that went completely out the window, but I was, for the most part, still standing. So I mean, I was fine, right?
Well, for the first five days of my daughter's life I tried so hard to exclusively breastfeed her that she was literally starving. She had to be re-admitted to the NICU for medical care. I felt so guilty, even after she got help, that I didn't mentally recover. I blamed myself for my undersupply and obsessed about what was, and more importantly, was not coming out of my breasts. I started tracking every ounce and every diaper on a spreadsheet, pumping 12 times a day, researching ideas online, seeing numerous lactation consultants, and trying almost anything to increase my milk supply.
It didn't take long before I started to feel like I had failed as a mom. When I think about it now, the fact that I was made to doubt my abilities as a parent is so messed up. Motherhood is so much more than your ability to breastfeed. I tortured myself for months, only to produce a few ounces of breast milk a day. It was so not worth it, but I thought I had to continue. A refrain of breast is best echoed in my head, even when it was becoming clear that breast wasn't best for us.
I Became Obsessed With Breastfeeding
I was so intent on breastfeeding that I conducted hours of research, took breastfeeding classes, attended La Leche League meetings, consulted professionals, and bought every breastfeeding supply and aid known to mom-kind. I didn't go a day without reading about breastfeeding online or in The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding (I've since burned my copy of that horrible book) or watching YouTube videos about latch techniques or hand expression. My obsession with breastfeeding became seriously unhealthy, but I totally didn't realize it.
I Blamed Myself For My Undersupply
I had always planned to breastfeed my babies exclusively, but nature had a few plans of her own. Turns out I have insufficient glandular tissue and my breasts don't make enough milk for my babies. And even though I could rationally tell myself it wasn't my fault, I still blamed myself. I started thinking that things I ate, medication I took, and sleeping through a midnight pumping session were the reasons for my undersupply. It was exhausting.
I Watched My Pump Like A Hawk
I was also obsessed with how much breast milk I could pump at one time, as if willing my breasts to produce more would magically increase my supply. Unfortunately, and unfairly, I started to judge my ability as a mom by the number of ounces of breast milk I made each day. I thought I was failing.
I Hid My Breastfeeding Problems From Friends & Family
I was so ashamed to tell people that I had to supplement with formula that I lied to everyone about my breastfeeding issues. I pretended that breastfeeding was going well. I didn't post pictures of my daughter with bottles on social media. In fact, I didn't let anyone take pictures of me feeding her period. And worse, I didn't get the support I needed because I felt so much shame. I remember going to a Fourth of July party at a friend's home and hiding in the bathroom to mix formula for the supplemental nursing system I used to feed her. I made my husband guard the door while I fed my baby in a freaking bathroom.
I Shamed Another Mom
Most of my friends were breastfeeding moms, so it came up a lot. And they were not nice at all about moms who made different choices when it came to how they fed their babies.
One time, when my daughter was about 1 month old, my friends were gossiping about another mom we knew who let her husband give their baby formula at night so she could sleep. I am so ashamed to admit that I joined in. I called another mom selfish for using formula. That was perhaps the most obvious sign that I wasn't OK.
I Cried When I Had To Supplement
Even though I knew my daughter needed to eat, I couldn't help but cry whenever I had to feed her formula. My self-esteem was nonexistent, and I mourned that I couldn't exclusively breastfeed my baby like I planned. I didn't get much support, either, because I kept my grief and disappointment to myself. I totally wish I had reached out sooner.
I Tracked Everything
I was so obsessed with how much breast milk I was making and how much my daughter was eating that I kept track of everything — when she ate, for how long, wet and poop-filled diapers, and pumping output — to ensure that she was getting enough to eat. Rather than making me feel better, however, creating a spreadsheet and checking her diaper compulsively was exhausting. It was another sign I wasn't OK.
I Started to Dread Feeding My Baby
Breastfeeding wasn't always magical and miraculous like I thought it would be. There were moments that I loved, for sure, but most of the time I was so touched out I just wanted my child to sleep. I became my baby's human pacifier from the late evening to the early morning, tied to the couch for hours, navigating Facebook with my thumb. I begged my daughter to just magically choose not to breastfeed anymore. It wasn't the bonding experience I imagined. That sense of dread was one of the first signs that it was impacting my mental health.
I Couldn't Sleep
I've had insomnia for much of my life, but nothing could prepare me for the insomnia I experienced after my babies were born. I was unable to sleep, so instead of getting the rest I needed I just stared at my daughter and tried to love her. It felt impossible to bond with my baby when I dreaded every feeding, not to mention the routine of feeding, pumping, and supplementing that I made myself do all day and night. I had no idea the inability to sleep could be a sign of depression. Fortunately, my midwife prescribed a sleep aid and an antidepressant to help me get some much-needed rest so I could start feeling like myself again.
If you're struggling with depression and/or thoughts of suicide, you can reach the U.S. National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255. International hotlines can be found here.