Healing After A Disappointing Breastfeeding Experience

I recently had the honor of being invited to speak at a nearby International Cesarean Awareness Network group meeting. I spoke on the topic, “Healing After A Cesarean.” Upon reflection, I think that a lot of what I talked about to the ICAN group applies to mothers who feel disappointed with their breastfeeding experience.

Many mothers have difficult experiences with breastfeeding and stop before they had hoped to. This can be devastating to come to terms with, and it is even harder if the mother does not understand the reasons breastfeeding didn’t work out for her and her baby.

This is a highly subjective and personal topic and I hope that my thoughts on it will be of help to women who have experienced what I am talking about. My perspective is only one, however, so please read what I have to say critically and take what works for you and leave the rest.

For the talk I gave, I looked up some definitions of healing and here’s what I found: to make sound or whole; to restore to health; to cause (an undesirable condition) to be overcome

And here’s my favorite from Medscape: “Healing is an intensely personal, subjective experience involving a reconciliation of the meaning an individual ascribes to distressing events with his or her perception of wholeness as a person.”

Human lactation is a relatively new field of study. Not everything is known about some of the more complex reasons women experience some of the many difficulties that can come up, in particular low milk supply, as well as sore nipples and many more.

Many women experience difficulties that could have been avoided or remedied if someone knowledgeable about lactation could have worked with her early on. Some difficulties confound even experts in the field of lactation. Breastfeeding is a complex dance involving both the mother's and baby’s anatomy, endocrine systems, and many other factors. It can take real detective work to figure out what is going on in some more complex cases, and many mothers don’t have someone experienced enough available to them, or end up so exhausted and discouraged that they decide to close the chapter on breastfeeding without really knowing why their milk supply is low, why their nipples hurt so much, why their baby isn’t gaining weight or whatever is going on.

Especially for women who were hoping to breastfeed much longer than they did, this can be very traumatic. Not only is the mother disappointed, but every time she gets together with friends who are breastfeeding, it may feel like a little bit more salt rubbed in the open wound of her grief.

As with any trauma, many mothers spend years going back to the experience, talking with others, and replaying every moment in their heads, trying to figure out where they went wrong. Some mothers eventually figure out what happened, but for many the cause remains a mystery. Healing can take years or longer. There are things a mother can do that I think generally help her move towards healing, and there are other things that seem like they would help, but typically don’t in my experience.

One thing that is usually part of the healing process is forgiving yourself. Every mother who has disappointment or regrets about her breastfeeding experience was doing the best she could at the time. Many mothers look back and say, “If only I had known then what I know now...” but the fact is she didn’t know. Many mothers find that they take a big step forward in their healing process when they look back and allow themselves to be more gentle towards that former self who didn’t know what to do.

Another step is forgiving all of the people, doctors, nurses, lactation consultants, doulas, husbands, partners, mothers, sisters, etc. who didn’t know how to help you. In many cases when breastfeeding doesn’t work out, one of the above named people didn’t know how to help or may have even said or done something that ended up sabotaging breastfeeding. Forgiveness under these circumstances can be extremely difficult, but is necessary to move forward. People give bad advice for a variety of reasons including ignorance, or not having the ability to see the whole picture, but it can help to keep in mind that nothing is personal. Nothing is personal...and a big step towards healing can often be taken when you feel sympathy for the person who should have been in a position to help you, and couldn’t.

For many women, eventually the traumatic experience is integrated into their lives, and little bits of good start to come from it. The mother may be able to be there for a friend or family member suffering some kind of trauma in a way that she couldn’t have before she experienced her own deep disappointment.

And one last thing I think leads to healing is taking time to listen to what you are telling yourself the experience means about you. Many mothers find they are saying things along the lines of, “I’m a failure.” Or “I’m not good enough.” Taking stock of the experience and asking yourself if what you are telling yourself is really true can often give some good perspective.

So now for some things that I think do not necessarily promote healing. The first one is having another baby so you can “get it right this time.” By all means, have another baby if you want another member of your family! The problems with trying to have a re-do experience are that there is always the chance breastfeeding won’t go well with the next baby either. Sometimes the same problems show up again, sometimes different ones, but in any case there are no guarantees that breastfeeding will go well the next time. If breastfeeding does go well, that’s great! And many mothers learn a lot from their first experience that allows them to avoid difficulties with another baby. The problem is, the second baby is a different person. The second experience is a different experience, so no matter how wonderful the re-do might be, the feelings from the first experience will still be there under the surface because that experience needs to be healed in its own right.

Another thing that doesn’t promote healing is blame. Many mothers find they are angry, and often rightfully so, at healthcare providers and others who weren’t able to help them, or may have even set back their breastfeeding experience. As painful as it is to realize that this has happened, I believe real healing only comes when mothers are able to forgive everyone who was involved.

Lastly, if you find yourself telling your story again and again, you are probably still trying to heal from it. Next time you catch yourself starting to tell your story, check in with yourself and ask yourself why you are telling it. Is it because it will help the person you are telling it to? Is it because you are hoping you will get a new insight this time? Every time you re-tell your story, you re-live it. You can’t change what happened, but you can change the meaning you give the events. Especially if you are telling your story to an expectant or new mother, challenge yourself to tell your story a different way, or to pull out the lessons from your story that really apply to the heart of parenting. And if you still find yourself needing to tell your story, try writing a letter to the old you, the you who was doing the best she could for her baby, herself and her family. Tell her you forgive her...even if you aren’t quite there yet, just try the sentence on and see how it feels. As you heal, you will likely find yourself telling your story less and less, and when you do tell it, you will be telling it differently.

I believe that every birth is traumatic in some way. There will always be expectations that were not met and things that did not go to plan. The same is true, to sometimes a lesser or greater degree, with breastfeeding. Trauma comes from a few key things: feeling out of control, not feeling respected, and having expectations that are not met.

Not all traumatic experiences can be avoided, but there are things we can do to try to lessen trauma: choose care providers you can trust, choose support people you can trust, educate yourself about possibilities and be as open as you can to a variety of experiences, remind yourself that breastfeeding is affected by many factors and that some things are out of your control, and remember that nothing that happens in birth or breastfeeding is a reflection of you as a person.

So once again, “Healing is an intensely personal, subjective experience involving a reconciliation of the meaning an individual ascribes to distressing events with his or her perception of wholeness as a person.” If you are struggling with healing from a disappointing breastfeeding experience, finding someone who is a good listener, perhaps a counselor, lactation consultant, La Leche League Leader, or other professional to work with can often help.

In our community we are fortunate to have a lactation consultant, Virginia Bobro, who offers healing sessions for women and families who have had difficult births or postpartum experiences, including breastfeeding disappointments. She offers in-person sessions for local families as well as phone or Skype sessions.