Being a new mom is hard. Add breastfeeding to the mix and not only are you responsible for keeping a baby alive, but you're also their sole source of sustenance. That, my friends, can be overwhelming and stressful. Before you know it you're obsessed with the amount of milk you're making, how solid your baby's latch it, and if you "have what it takes" to be the mom you set out to be, especially if nursing doesn't go according to plan. So believe me when I say breastfeeding anxiety is real, and your feelings around the topic are valid AF. The good news, however, is that there are ways to cope, and you don't have to at it alone.
According to Postpartum Support International, anxiety during the postpartum period is super common, impacting about 10 percent of new moms. Postpartum Progress notes that for breastfeeding moms, anxiety can have a variety of underlying causes including hormone changes, breastfeeding challenges, and postpartum mood disorders like postpartum depression (PPD) and postpartum anxiety (PPA). To make matters even more complex, according to one study published in the journal BMC Pregnancy & Childbirth, anxiety can interfere with breastfeeding too, so, often times it's difficult to know if breastfeeding issues are causing your anxiety or your anxiety is causing your breastfeeding problems.
If all this information is making you anxious, you're not alone. The good news is that while breastfeeding anxiety is a thing, there are things you can do to help ease your stress. Namely, according to Postpartum Progress, taking care of yourself and getting the medical help for your anxiety that you and your baby deserve.
Find Out What’s Going On
According to D-MER.org, some breastfeeding women may feel anxiety or feelings of dread right before let-down (milk is released). According to the same site, this condition — called Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex, or D-MER for short — is caused by a drop in dopamine, and can be upsetting and confusing for new parents who don't understand why it's happening.
If you have anxiety related to breastfeeding that isn't isolated to letdown, it might be caused by postpartum anxiety (PPA). Postpartum Support International estimates that PPA impacts about 10 percent of new moms, which makes it more common than postpartum depression (PPD).
According to physician and breastfeeding researcher Alison Stuebe, MD, hormone changes during breastfeeding — specifically oxytocin — can make your anxiety worse. She adds that if you, like many moms, have trouble breastfeeding, those difficulties can also create anxiety, specifically about your baby getting enough to eat or even your value as a mom. She writes for Breastfeeding Medicine:
"The nuances of the biology suggest that doctors absolutely need to think about the effect of breastfeeding on a woman’s mood symptoms — and that the effect likely differs from mother to mother. I have cared for women with postpartum depression who describe breastfeeding as the only thing that ties them to their baby. I’ve also cared for women who are struggling with milk production and spending all of their time trying to eek out a few more drops of breast milk, at the expense of their baby’s other needs."
To make things even more complicated, a study published in the journal BMC Pregnancy & Childbirth showed that weaning early or not achieving breastfeeding goals also can contribute to anxiety, which can make it hard for an anxious new mom to figure out what to do moving forward.
Talk About It
Because new moms are expected to enjoy every moment of newborn life, it can be damn near difficult to feel better when you don't let people know what you're going through. According to Postpartum Progress, anxiety and stress related to breastfeeding is super common. For many moms, talking about their worries — especially with a trained professional — can help ease their anxiety, especially if it manifests as worries related to your baby or being a good mom.
Get Some Sleep
According to Postpartum Progress, and pretty much anyone who has ever been sleep-deprived, there is a direct connection between getting enough sleep and your ability to manage anxiety symptoms. When you are a breastfeeding mom, this can feel even more overwhelming, because as the food-source for your baby you are almost guaranteed to lose some sleep during late-night feedings.
Also, according to Karen Kleinman, MSW, author of Therapy and the Postpartum Woman, anxiety can cause insomnia, too, making your life feel like an endless cycle of sleep deprivation and worry. Psychiatrist Marlene Freeman, MD recommends that moms with anxiety about breastfeeding focus on getting more sleep, even if that means letting someone else feed the baby.
If you suffer from breastfeeding anxiety, it's important that you get treatment, especially if your symptoms are severe. As Postpartum Progress reports, many new moms need medication, such as anti-depressants and/or benzodiazepines, to ease their anxiety.
As Freeman notes on the same website, there are medication options that are compatible with breastfeeding. Then again, you may choose to stop breastfeeding altogether, which is an entirely valid and understandable choice. She writes, "It is absolutely true that breastfeeding has great nutritional value, but it is not more important than the mother’s health and ability to bond with her baby and function."
Take Care Of Yourself
As Freeman writes on Postpartum Progress, "For women suffering from mood and/or anxiety disorders, having breaks for sleep and self-care are essential." The same site notes that little things like getting rest, eating well, staying hydrated, and "mindful breathing" can go a long way towards helping you feel healthier and less anxious, especially as you recover from childbirth.
Get Help With Breastfeeding Problems
According to Freeman, because anxiety related to breastfeeding problems can be overwhelming and trigger postpartum depression or make symptoms worse, it's important that you balance your desire to breastfeed with your need to take care of yourself. If your stress is related to your baby not eating enough or gaining weight, you should consult a medical professional to address the underlying problem.
If you are not able to overcome your breastfeeding problems, it might be time to re-define your breastfeeding goals. As Clinical Psychologist Ruth Ann Harpur writes for the Fed is Best Foundation, "The first and foremost healthy and attainable feeding goal is a fully nourished, thriving, and satisfied baby."
Consider Adding A Bottle To The Mix
If your anxiety is getting in the way of you being the best mom you can be, you may want to consider using formula or pumped milk, some or all of the time. As Harpur writes for the Fed is Best Foundation:
"Sadly, some women find breastfeeding so uncomfortable that they begin to dread feeding sessions....This is an urgent reason to re-evaluate feeding methods. A baby needs to be fed with love and in comfort, not through a mother’s tears or gritted teeth."
The good news is that breastfeeding doesn't have to be all or nothing. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most breastfeeding moms use a combination of breast milk and formula to feed their babies. Another option is to stop breastfeeding entirely, which is sometimes the best decision for a mom with breastfeeding anxiety. As Freeman writes for Postpartum Progress, "If breastfeeding adds to a woman’s depressive or anxious symptoms, it is reasonable to stop. Sometimes it is necessary to stop."
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.