Anger and the emotions that tend to lean towards getting you angry, like frustration, irritation, inadequacy, agitation, feeling slighted etc, are such an important aspect of BAA that this separate page and research article is dedicated to it. Understanding anger as a human emotion, and why we get angry, may help us understand why mothers with BAA experience it when their infant is latched.
Anger is defined as a strong feeling of getting annoyed, upset, or displeased because of an occurrence of something, where the person who feels it may feel was wrong or bad. It may also be described as a feeling that makes someone want to hurt others, vent by screaming out loud or hitting into a pillow. People get angry due to how they interpret and react to particular situations and crucially, different people react differently to various situations (everyone has a formula or triggers that may set them off). Therefore, a situation that may make a person feel angry may not make another person feel angry at all. (Averill, 1983). This may partly explain why some women experience BAA, whilst others in similar circumstances do not.
Some of the situations that may trigger anger include feelings of being threatened; feelings of being frustrated or powerless; and feelings of being treated unfairly. When breastfeeding becomes challenging, there are a whole plethora of emotions that arise that could lead to the manifestation of anger. Sometimes, just not be abe to get an errand or a household task done because you have to sit down and endlessly breastfeed is enough to warrant frustration. Or, you may have spent most of your adult life living by 'my body, my rules', only to be completely defied by your baby or toddler, and as you desperately want them to stop crying you forgo your own principle. Repeatedly, every single day. Or if you have to breastfeed while experiencing pain, because of tongue tie, poor latch, blocked ducts, mastitis or breast and nipple sensitivity while on your menses, this could lead to feelings of anger.
Among the factors that contribute to a person’s interpretation and reaction to a situation include; an individual’s upbringing and childhood; past experiences; and current circumstances. It is, in a way, not your fault if you are more prone to reacting with anger to an event because it could be argued that a person's bringing and childhood often influence on how a person learns to cope with angry feelings. For example, you may have been brought up with the belief that it is okay to act out your anger, even violently or aggressively. A person may also feel angry depending on past experiences where they were not able to express themselves at the time when a particular situation occurred, and may hence be coping with those experiences now, like if you have suffered abuse, whether physical, emotional or sexual, at the hands of another, especially for women. It is possible also that people can just feel angry more than usual due to current problems that they face in their lives. (Harder, & Zalma, 1990) These problems could include stressful situations of loss of a beloved person, financial constraints, among others. Parenting can be so very difficult, and for some mothers, it brings out the worst because of how much it takes from you. Breastfeeding can be a source of comfort, of pride, an invaluable tool to use when babies are crying, or when toddlers are sick. However, it can also be a source of frustration, powerlessness, and friction if you are the only source of milk, or if your child demands the breast very often while nipple tweaking or pinching you incessantly. Whatever the trigger or cause may be in mothers, the feelings that arise and the reactions that consequently come are often very similar, see here and here for what women say themselves.
There are various ways of managing anger when a difficult situation arises. These include, first, looking out for warning signs such as a faster heartbeat, quicker breathing, or becoming more tense. So in the case of experiencing aversion to breastfeeding/nursing you really should identify your personal triggers and which particular situations or scenarios or periods of time BAA can happen. When recognizing any of these signs, the best way to avoid any chance of reacting to a situation is to leave the situation before anything happens, and hence manage the anger and dispell it alone. Obviously, this is impossible with babies, and almost impossible with toddlers or children. The next best step is to set boundaries for nursing and time limits for nursing, to gain back some balance and manage yourself (If baby is old enough). It is here where a partner or a family member's role in helping you is crucial to give you time and space (sometimes frequently) so you get a hold of the feelings you have and redress the balance. I would suggest trying to get someone to step in to give you a break early on in your experience of BAA if its pretty intense, so you can reassess things with a clearer head and heart, before it gets so bad that someone has to step in, because you are at breaking point and you literally have to de-latch that very instant and walk away. If you have no-one to help you right now the most immediate thing you can do is get out of the house so you are nursing outside with other people, and you are not alone.
Secondly, you can opt to try out certain techniques of managing feelings depending on the cause of anger. Such methods include breathing slowly, relaxing the body, and doing something to distract oneself. (Burney & Irwin, 2000). I think a commonly used, and most effective technique that mothers with BAA use is 'distraction'. Not a technical method, but the most cited by mothers with studies to show why it might work, essentially because both emotional responses and cognitive activities and tasks take up the same mental resources, and that these resources are limited in your brain. So, if you are 'doing something else' cognitively, you have less 'brain energy' to dwell on your emotion and your emotional response. Be it a phone, a book, watching TV, squeezing a stress ball, holding an ice cube, or (if it gets really bad) biting down on one's hand, they will all work to curb your anger.
Thirdly, crying can be a safer release method for the pent up energy that is anger and frustration, although there is mixed empirical evidence that catharsis after crying happens for everyone. In general, though, crying is somewhat better received by infants and children than any outbursts of anger or shouting (Please look out for my next article on this and mirror neurons for more information). It is my contention that our outward (and even internal) responses as mothers can start, continue, perpetuate and escalate aversion in some instances and mother-baby dyads.
Fourthly, and rather surprisingly, it is possible that venting your anger (angrily) doesn't reduce it, there is a case it intensifies it. Read here for more information. It may seem natural to hold everything in (being the better person, trying to be the mother you want to be), and then have to let it all out when it gets too much. Seems contrary to commonly held and deep-rooted ideas that venting anger releases it, but here the idea is, if you are focusing on it, you are intensifying the experience of it - and therefore making it more difficult to keep it under wraps.
What I can say, from the research into BAA and anger, and experiencing it, is that it is a sign to do something, a call to action in a way. Make a plan, find your triggers, change the way you do things or the way you respond, get help, and above all do not beat yourself up. Lots of women experience BAA, in varying forms and severities, so in a way, it is completely normal. If you want to continue breastfeeding it is possible with help and support. If you need to stop breastfeeding, again it is possible with help and support.
Averill, J. R. (1983). Studies on anger and aggression: Implications for theories of emotion. American psychologist, 38(11), 1145.
Burney, J., & Irwin, H. J. (2000). Shame and guilt in women with eating disorder symptomatology. Journal of clinical psychology, 56(1), 51-61.
Harder, D. H., & Zalma, A. (1990). Two promising shame and guilt scales: A construct validity comparison. Journal of personality assessment, 55(3-4), 729-745.
Harder, D. W., & Lewis, S. J. (1987). The assessment of shame and guilt. Advances in personality assessment, 6, 89-114.
Konstam, V., Chernoff, M., & Deveney, S. (2001). Toward forgiveness: The role of shame, guilt, anger, and empathy. Counseling and Values, 46(1), 26.
Sanftner, J. L., & Crowther, J. H. (1998). Variability in self‐esteem, moods, shame, and guilt in women who binge. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 23(4), 391-397.
Lauren M. Bylsma, Ad J. J. M. Vingerhoets, and Jonathan Rottenberg, When is Crying Cathartic? An International Study,Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 2008 27, 10, 1165-1187