She wanted everything under the sun
by Bethany Neubarth
Breastfeeding trauma and grief matter. Women who have been through a difficult time breastfeeding can show signs of trauma. They can have anxiety when they think about breastfeeding or experience strong negative emotions, such as anger, panic, shame, guilt and fear. These can result in intense psychological distress from reminders of the breastfeeding experience. This trauma can result from the loss of a greatly desired breastfeeding relationship or from difficulty breastfeeding (Brown, 2019).
There it was, in a social media comment: “She was shaming us not for prescribing her every possible med under the sun.” I was enraged. I had struggled intensely with postpartum depression and anxiety. What made it worse was not being able to breastfeed. It was something that I desperately wanted to do. I was given incorrect information when told by the IBCLC that at 7 days old, I needed to start supplementing with formula. At 18 days old, she developed meningitis and was hospitalized. It was terrifying, and I felt like I could have prevented it if I had been able to breastfeed.
I wasn’t instructed on how to increase my milk supply or told that using formula would continue to decrease my supply. My daughter coughed and gagged every time I tried to feed her. It was nonstop screaming with every feeding. I constantly felt like a failure because I couldn’t perform a basic task as breastfeeding. This went on for months. Pumping, triple feeding, syringe feeding. Pumping 8-10 times a day, just to keep just a few ounces going. I was told that no medications would work for me. I asked to see a provider several times but was denied. Every time, they told me that I had to see the IBCLC first, and they would decide. Finally, at three months, I refused to leave the office of the IBCLC until I was addressed by a medical provider. They identified I had PCOS and offered to start me on metformin. After three months of being dismissed and told nothing would work to increase my supply, I started to make an additional ounce a day. It was still meager, and would never fulfill my daughter’s needs, but I desperately wanted to breastfeed. My daughter never had a strong suck. Rather, she constantly coughed and choked with every feed. I brought this up to our IBCLC, our pediatrician and my midwives. My daughter never stopped crying. She was never satisfied. I wanted to hold onto every last moment I could with breastfeeding. I felt like a failure if I couldn’t.
“She complains about how poorly she was looked after in her postpartum,” the social media comment said. My stomach was now turning. I had recently joined a social media group for midwives, and I decided to search for low-supply solutions. As I read more of the comment, I realized it was me they were talking about. The person writing it was my midwife. It continues to state I wanted everything under the sun. I was furious. Why is it so wrong to want to try everything under the sun in order to breastfeed? Is it wrong for women to want to be given different options and pursue what is important to them? I read every article regarding low supply. I visited every social media page I could find. I voiced my struggles, but it was so hard to get people to listen. I was told things like, “Above all, the baby needs to be fed” and “No one has a perfect pregnancy, perfect labor and perfect postpartum.” I didn’t want things to be perfect. I just wanted to be heard and validated.
My daughter is now almost two. After continuing to struggle with feeding, she was finally diagnosed as having a laryngeal cleft that was missed during her first year of life. She aspirated on thin, thick and solid foods. She had been aspirating since she was born. She had surgery earlier this year, and the majority of her feeding difficulties have subsided. But she continues to struggle with chronic lung disease due to the aspiration. Breastfeeding was very traumatic for me. Not only did I not meet my goals, but it was very stressful, and we had significant feeding difficulties.
I continued to re-read the social media comment. I was angry. There was a complete lack of understanding of the struggles we went through during our first year. There was no comprehension of breastfeeding trauma or grief. There was no indication that this provider was aware at how devastating it could be for a woman not to experience breastfeeding how she imagined it would be. Of course, I wanted everything under the sun. I desperately wanted to hold on to something that was extremely important to me. I wanted to grasp at every opportunity I had to hang onto breastfeeding.
It seems that, as providers, it so easy to forget and overlook the emotional connection a mother has with breastfeeding. In this busy world, when the goal is to provided nutrients for a newborn, it’s easy to miss how traumatizing it can be for a woman not to meet her breastfeeding expectations.
Professor and Director of the Centre for Lactation, Infant Feeding and Translation (LIFT) at Swansea University in the UK, Amy Brown, has identified some options that providers have to help support women who might be at risk for developing breastfeeding trauma. They include:
- Help the woman with set realistic goals for breastfeeding prior to the arrival of her baby.
- Provide the woman with information and support about her choices and options. Allow her to have choices.
- Allow for more skilled support.
- Better diagnosis of complications.
- Think about the words used to promote breastfeeding.
- Stop suggesting that it’s all a choice. For some women, it’s not.
- Stop saying that women should “give up” breastfeeding.
- Look at the content of breastfeeding materials. (Going over all the educational documents I was given in pregnancy, not one of them addressed low supply or that it could even occur).
- Don’t shame the women who is looking for more options or support.
- Recognize the emotions that not being able to breastfeed can bring up for many women.
- Validate the woman’s emotions.
These small things can make a huge difference for a mother struggling with breastfeeding.
Brown, A. (2019 ). Why breastfeeding grief and trauma matter. Pinter & Martin Ltd .
Bethany Neubarth MSN, PMHNP, PMH-C has been a nurse for 12 years and now currently works as a PMHNP in Alaska where she lives with her husband, daughter, three dogs and 14 chickens. Her hobbies include making coloring pages, hiking and painting.