The author of a new book, Zainab Yate, talks us through some misconceptions
Many mothers and those who support them do not know that they can experience negative emotions associated with breastfeeding. In modern society breastfeeding is often used – problematically – to exemplify myths about motherhood and maternal love, and is bound up with ideas of what makes a ‘good mother’. In this context nursing aversion and agitation – intense, distressing feelings that are experienced by the mother during breastfeeding – can be both unexpected and hugely upsetting, particularly when women may have already overcome significant challenges in order to breastfeed. In a new book on the subject, When Breastfeeding Sucks, Zainab Yate examines what we know about this poorly understood aspect of infant feeding. Here she sets out the 10 most common misconceptions… 1. Breastfeeding mothers who experience aversion do not always want to stop breastfeeding! Breastfeeding or Nursing Aversion (aversion) is when breastfeeding appears to trigger particular negative emotions like anger and agitation, skin-crawling sensations and an overwhelming urge to de-latch. You can also feel like a prisoner when breastfeeding or have thoughts of pushing your nursling off you and running away. Although it creates an emotional burden for mothers, and a strain on their breastfeeding relationship, mothers do not often want to ‘just stop breastfeeding’. What most of them desperately want is for aversion to go away. 2. Aversion can strike at any point in any breastfeeding mothers journey. Whilst many in the infant feeding and mothering world knew that aversion can strike when a mother is breastfeeding while pregnant or when she is feeding an older nursling, it can actually happen at any point in a breastfeeding journey – with some mothers experiencing it at the newborn stage. Even though there is a strong argument that aversion is a natural biological trigger to start the weaning process in older nurslings, if you experience aversion and your nursling is under 12 months old, milk is their main source of nutrition so it is best to seek advice from an infant feeding specialist. 3. One reason for aversion could be oxytocin! In some mothers, it is possible that they have a negative association to breastfeeding, whether it is due to being a survivor of previous sexual abuse, childhood trauma or simply because the start of their breastfeeding journey was very painful or challenging for many weeks, even months. I argue that these can cause a stress response due to the oxytocin, instead of loving, calming feeling it is well known for when breastfeeding. This is because oxytocin actually plays a role in stress regulation, and can cause fear and stress in negative experiences as it activates a part of the brain that intensifies the memory. 4.Some mothers self-harm in order to continue to breastfeed through aversion if they find breastfeeding painful. This is known as the gate control method, a scientific theory that asserts the activation of nerves which do not transmit pain signals can stop or interfere with signals from pain fibres. So digging your nails into your thighs or biting down on your hand can inhibit the perception and therefore the sensation of pain in your nipple when breastfeeding. Many mothers in this predicament seem to instinctively do this. This would be a particularly severe level of aversion, as aversion can be experienced on a spectrum. If you feel like this, please seek advice from a health care professional or infant feeding specialist. 5. Aversion is different from Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex (D-MER) D-MER is a medical condition that can be diagnosed in a breastfeeding mother when her letdown causes her to feel negative emotions like despair, despondency and hopelessness. It lasts a few minutes and is dissimilar to aversion as the latter can last throughout a whole feed, whether it is 2 minutes or 2 hours – like the breastfeeding-to-sleep-marathon that can happen at night. Mothers can, however, experience both, and I believe if you struggle with D-MER you are more likely to experience aversion due to the added difficulty you experience when breastfeeding. 6. Misdiagnosis can occur with aversion. Some mothers have sought help and advice from their doctors about their aversion when breastfeeding, but because some of the symptoms of negative emotions are similar to post-natal depression, and because they have just had a baby, health care professionals had wrongly assumed they must be post-natally depressed. If you are otherwise managing fine in day to day life and your emotions, and your difficulty with breastfeeding is just when your nursling is latched, or if anti-depressants the doctor prescribed you do not help your aversion, return back to your doctor and asked for proper screening, assessment and support. 7. Weaning and stopping breastfeeding can be just as hard as carrying on! Breastfeeding cessation can be very difficult for mothers with aversion because of compounded guilt and shame that they experience in the aftermath of their negative emotions. Even if breastfeeding mothers who experience aversion do decide to wean, many can be surprised at how difficult it is to wean, both practically (if they have a particularly boob-attached nursling), and emotionally, as mothers have to process the feelings of guilt and shame around the negative emotions, and separate that with the guilt of stopping. Understanding that aversion is actually a reasonable response to an intolerable situation, what can alleviate or lessen aversion, and what the weaning process entails can help you get through it. 8. Mothers with aversion fear they are harming their nurslings So many mothers I support are concerned about having aversion when breastfeeding – that it will harm their nurslings because of the nature of the emotions – but there is no evidence to show this happens. Whether it is feeling stressed or angry when breastfeeding, or even weaning earlier than you or your nursling want due to severe aversion, there is no evidence to indicate there is any long term harm caused to your nursling due to this. We all know the benefits of breastfeeding both mentally and physically as there is a lot of research about this, but we must understand these facts in the context of the research. These studies and statements are about when breastfeeding is going well. With severe aversion and breastfeeding challenges, it is questionable whether all the benefits of breastfeeding and bonding remain, and we know the research shows that when breastfeeding is hard or painful mothers are actually more at risk of post-natal depression. 9. Aversion can lessen or even go away for some mothers For mothers who figure out their triggers, make lifestyle changes, improve their sleep hygiene, eating habits or use supplements like magnesium, aversion can abate and for some, it disappears as quickly as it reared its ugly head. There is always something you can try, and accessing our free online structured support course on www.breastfeedingaversion.com, or our peer-to-peer support group ‘Aversion Sucks’ on Facebook to get tips and tricks from other mothers struggling can instantly help you deal with aversion. 10. You don’t get aversion with every nursling. Sometimes mothers worry that because they experienced aversion with their first nursling they will automatically get it again, but this isn’t always the case. As I outline my biopsychosocial theory of the phenomenon of aversion in my book ‘When Breastfeeding Sucks’, I cover why some physiological, psychological and societal causes can mean you experience aversion. I believe forewarned is forearmed, and the second or third time around as a breastfeeding mother you know more and are more empowered to protect yourself against things that can compromise your physical and mental health and therefore to protect you against aversion.
Zainab Yate BSc, MSc (Medical Ethics & Law, Imperial College) is an independent infant feeding researcher & campaigner. She is currently Vice-Chair of the North London Research Ethics Committee, with the Health Research Authority in the UK (HRA). She is founder of Infant Feeding Research Ethics, and a member of the King’s College London Research Ethics, Governance Policy & Integrity Committee (KCL). She lives in Hertfordshire with her family. Instagram: @breastfeedingaversion Facebook page: @breastfeedingaversion Twitter: @bf_aversion