Anxiety

close up of baby nursing on mother's breast
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Breastfeeding Anxiety Is Real: 7 Ways To Ease The Stress Of Nursing

You’re not alone.

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You don’t even have to be a parent to know that there is an awful lot of pressure put on expecting and new mothers to breastfeed their babies. This messaging is, of course, rooted in science and good intentions, but it can inadvertently contribute to new moms developing breastfeeding anxiety when things don’t go as smoothly as they’d like. Moms who struggle with breastfeeding can even become so anxious over it that they question whether or not they are good parents.

“Some parents will obsessively weigh their baby, excessively pump in addition to feeding exclusively at the breast, or have overwhelming fears that they are not making enough milk for their baby,” lactation consultant Amanda DeWeese, MPH, CPH, IBCLC, tells Romper in an email. She explains that this hyperfocus can affect their overall well-being, too, resulting in headaches, difficulty sleeping and/or concentrating, or changes in their appetite. Not only that but breastfeeding anxiety can also contribute to the development of a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMAD), perinatal mental health specialist Kirsten Brunner, MA, LPC, tells Romper. “If a mom was planning on exclusively breastfeeding her baby, and she ends up having to supplement with formula, or even switch to formula, this can trigger symptoms of extreme anxiety and depression,” she says, “These symptoms can progress into a full-blown PMAD.”

So, what can you do to help ease this anxiety? DeWeese and Brunner offer several suggestions.

Rest Assured: This Is Very Common

First and foremost, it’s important to understand that this happens to a lot of parents and you are not alone. “New mothers often feel an enormous amount of pressure to make breastfeeding work… [and] when challenges or difficulties do arise, mothers often feel like they are failing at nourishing their child” says Brunner, “These feelings of extreme pressure coupled with feelings of failure can cause a new mom to feel incredibly anxious and even depressed.”

DeWeese echoes this, explaining that new parents frequently find themselves anxious that they won’t be able to make enough milk to feed their child or meet their personal goals. This can even be exasperated if this isn’t their first attempt. “Parents who have had previous breastfeeding experiences where they didn’t meet their goals or struggled with pain may also have additional anxiety,” she says. Additionally, DeWeese explains that these feelings of anxiety are sometimes the result of D-MER or dysphoric milk ejection reflex, “which occurs before a letdown and can cause feelings of anxiety, sadness, or uncomfortableness.”

Use Breastfeeding Resources

It may be tempting to refer to Google to try to get all of your breastfeeding questions answered, but chances are high that will result in conflicting advice, which will not ease your anxiety. Instead, rely on credible breastfeeding resources. “Take a reputable breastfeeding class and meet with an international board-certified lactation consultant (IBCLC),” advises DeWeese, “[Or] join a good breastfeeding group.” Brunner agrees, and says it’s great for breastfeeding moms to have a list of resources they can turn to when the anxiety gets bad. “Although many people think that breastfeeding should be intuitive and natural, it does not always feel intuitive at first,” she adds, “Breastfeeding often takes time and practice to get the hang of, for both mom and baby” so good resources are often essential to finding success.

Give It Time

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This may be the most frustrating advice for a parent who is experiencing anxiety, but learning how to breastfeed takes time and sometimes reminding yourself of this can help ease the anxiety. “Just as with any new endeavor, moms should allow themselves plenty of time to really feel comfortable with the new job of feeding their baby,” says Brunner, “It is very normal to experience challenges with latch or milk supply in the beginning.” Try to give yourself a little grace and remember that like anything else, there is a learning curve to breastfeeding. If it will help, write this down on Post-Its and hang them all over your house as a constant reminder that this could take some time.

Try The Bottle Or Supplement With Formula

When you’re struggling with breastfeeding, you may create a narrative in your head that switching to the bottle or supplementing with formula equals failure, but that certainly isn’t the case. “Moms should remind themselves that ‘fed is best,’” notes Brunner, “they should not berate themselves or feel guilty…[because] as long as their baby is being nourished and fed, they are doing a fabulous job.”

Resist the urge to consider bottle or formula feeding giving up, and instead try to focus on the positives. “Partners and helpers are able to participate in feeding and allow mom to rest,” adds Brunner. This not only allows your baby some time to bond with another parent or caregiver but can also give you some downtime, which is essential to managing anxiety. “If a mom is experiencing any postpartum anxiety or depression, rest and sleep are going to be top priorities for her,” says Brunner.

Talk To A Professional

There is a reason there are so many lactation experts and maternal mental health providers out there — because a lot of new moms rely on their expertise to navigate the postpartum period. So, there may come a point where the best move for you is to talk to a professional. Try setting up an appointment with a lactation consultant to see if they can help with the process of breastfeeding. “[Have] a breastfeeding ‘check up’ to make sure that latching is going well and baby is getting enough milk,” suggests DeWeese, “[this] can help boost your confidence and ease your anxiety.”

If the anxiety seems unbearable, though, it may be a good idea to reach out to a mental health professional who can teach you some coping skills to help with the anxiety. “If mom finds that she is having difficulty sleeping or difficulty enjoying her new baby due to her worries about breastfeeding, I encourage her to reach out for support and guidance,” says Brunner.

Additionally, since breastfeeding anxiety has the potential to turn into a full-blown PMAD, if you start to notice a shift in what is making you anxious or you’re starting to feel depressed, definitely seek help. “If you are experiencing difficulty bonding with Baby, inability to care for yourself or baby, loss of interest in regular activities, scary or disruptive intrusive thoughts, or any other feelings of being too overwhelmed with the transition to parenthood, I would strongly suggest reaching out to a healthcare provider,” says DeWeese.

Take Care Of Yourself

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New parents are constantly reminded of the importance of self-care, which can seem downright humorous to a new mom who hasn’t had 10 minutes to so much as shower in over a week. However, if you’re experiencing feelings of anxiety, the need for self-care is essential to ensuring it doesn’t worsen. Also, taking good care of your body will help keep your milk supply up so that breastfeeding is less of a struggle. “Getting enough rest (even if it’s not all in one solid chunk), making sure to eat plenty of nutrient-dense foods, incorporating movement into your daily routine, and staying hydrated can make a huge difference,” explains DeWeese.

Don’t Be Afraid To Stop

Another thing that may help ease your anxiety is coming to terms with the fact that there may come a point where the best thing for you and your baby is to switch entirely to formula. Simply giving yourself this “out” can sometimes help ease all of this pressure. Remember, switching to formula is not a failure, because your baby will still be fed and healthy and you will be healthier mentally, as well. “Yes, breastmilk is very beneficial for their baby,” says Brunner, “but having a mother who is rested and emotionally stable is even more important and beneficial.”

Experts:

Kirsten Brunner, MA, LPC, Perinatal Counselor or Perinatal Mental Health Specialist

Amanda DeWeese, MPH, CPH, IBCLC, LLL Leader