Even before becoming a mother, Zainab Yate was sure she would breastfeed her children until they turned two. It was part of her cultural and religious upbringing: born in Iran to a Persian mother and a London-based English convert to Islam, Yate grew up in Norfolk and has lived in the UK since. Her mother gave birth naturally without any intervention and breastfed all of her seven children, and Yate assumed she would have the same experience. “In Iranian culture, you don’t have a conversation about what type of infant feeding you will choose. You have this idea that you breastfeed for two years. Every Muslim girl will know that.”
When her first child was born, she breastfed and things worked reasonably well. But after a few months, she started struggling. She was in pain, felt trapped and “touched out”. “I hated breastfeeding. I was visibly angry, but I didn’t have the words to explain it. I just sounded like a bitter, complaining woman.”
A biomedical ethicist and researcher working on her Ph.D. when her son was born, Yate started looking into thescience of breastfeeding and was shocked to find very little that could help her validate her feelings. Everywhere she turned, she heard the same answers: “breastfeeding shouldn’t be uncomfortable if you’ve been doing it for all these months”, “why don’t you just stop if you hate it”. “The information out there would not answer any of my questions. I seemed to be an outlier. That brick wall would add to my frustration because somehow it seemed that it wasn’t real. It was all in my head.”
When academic journals failed her, she turned to social networks. That’s when she found others who used similar language to hers. She started an online campaign to ask women how they felt when their breastfeeding went wrong, using hashtags such as #aversionsucks and #touchedout. The messages started pouring in.
“I was biting down on my hand while she fed – just to get through the feed. I felt like a monster when she was on, it was scary. And when she stopped feeding it would go away, but I just felt so guilty. What kind of mother feels like that when she is feeding her baby?”, wrote Felicity from London.
“I could feel every drop being pulled out and the tongue ever so slightly on my nipple again and again. I just had rage. And when I couldn’t bear it any longer, I would try to take her off. Of course then she would cry, and I would cry. And this just happened again and again,” said Hayling in Hong Kong.
Priya from Lahore, India, said: “Feeding her is making me angry right now. I know it shouldn’t, maybe this is not normal, and I need some kind of help, but it is how I feel. I want to take her off my breast.”
Yate eventually dropped her Ph.D. project to study the conflictive feelings that she and many other women had regarding breastfeeding. Her research turned into an online course and peer support group as well as a book: When Breastfeeding Sucks: What You Need to Know about Nursing Aversion and Agitation. “I wanted others to have the words to say what they were going through,” says Yate.
Breastfeeding aversion is when breastfeeding triggers negative emotions or intrusive thoughts. It is not to be confused with Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex, or D-MER, as the latter only occurs when milk is released, has distinct negative emotions such as hopelessness and despair, and is a better-researched medical condition. The emotions connected to aversion are different. They can include anger, agitation, rage, irritation, a skin itch sensation or a skin-crawling sensation, an overwhelming urge to de-latch followed by guilt or shame for your actions. You may desire to take the baby off and run away or to throw them across the room. These feelings can emerge at any point in your breastfeeding journey, and they appear on a spectrum. Some people may never experience any of them, and others will feel them daily.
This may sound awful, but hearing about it helped me understand what I may be going through. I interviewed Yate late last year when her book came out, and I myself was experiencing what I then realised was aversion. Lorenzo was almost two years old, and I was breastfeeding him only at night, mainly to put him to sleep. Instead of cherishing our connection and closeness, like I had done when he was a baby, I started dreading our evenings together. I felt used by him and frustrated when it took him a long time to settle. I always try to keep the bedroom phone-free, but I started bringing in the phone to pack in some Greek exercises to avoid running away. Because that was it: I wanted to check into a hotel by myself and not be around until Nacho, my husband, sorted out Lorenzo’s sleeping habits. Had there not been a total lockdown, I would have probably gone down that route. I kept remembering the words of the paediatrician who had told me I was ruining Lorenzo by breastfeeding him past his infancy and thinking of my mum’s judgmental references to Lorenzo wanting more of my milk. But I had loved breastfeeding, so why was I feeling this? Whenever I told Nacho about it, he felt frustrated because he didn’t know how to help. Lorenzo would only fall asleep with me. Thanks to Yate’s book and our chat, I understood that I was trying to wean, and my pregnancy hormones and stress at work were not helping.
Yate suggests several steps to address aversion. She even created an acronym to go through them and explains her methods in this brief podcast and her book in more length. Her main point is that breastfeeding aversion is a biopsychosocial phenomenon, meaning that you need to consider biological, psychological and socio-environmental factors to understand why it happens and how to mitigate it.
“The first thing I tend to ask when women reach out to me because they have aversion is ‘Do you want to be a mother right now?’ And ‘Are you happy, or is there something going on in your life?’” Yate explains. “I try to get the mothers to gently understand that the symptoms of aversion don’t have to do with breastfeeding.”
While the book aims to explain what breastfeeding aversion is and why it arises, it handles universal questions around motherhood in the 21st century. Our romantic idea of motherly love, the lack of governmental support, the prevalence of nuclear families and work pressures profoundly interfere with how we feel about spending hours and hours immobile feeding our children. A history of sexual abuse may make physical contact even harder to accept. What is correct in that case? Is continuing breastfeeding the right solution, and – on the other hand of the spectrum – is stopping straight away the only way to go?
You may be surprised to hear that Yate did breastfeed both of her children until they were two years old, for a total of four years. The aversion was not as bad with her second child as it was with the first.
“I am super proud I did what I did. The whole experience changed me completely. I found a lot of compassion for myself, and I found a lot of compassion for others. Growing up I assumed I would become a specific kind of mother, and when I became a mother, I assumed I would be a perfect mother, the one who gave birth normally and breastfed easily and gave love and was nourishing. But none of this happened. This helps me support other mothers because all of us feel some shock. Something hits us when we become mothers,” she says.
What I particularly love about Yate’s approach is that she makes it explicit that we can’t talk about breastfeeding and child-rearing without taking into account the context. And, of course, if we consider the bigger picture, we can more easily accommodate all experiences with compassion instead of saying: stop complaining or quit.
Several factors can contribute to breastfeeding aversion, Yate explains. At night, aversion may be more severe because you have a flight or fight response caused by a nocturnal adrenaline rush, for example. You may be going through the list of all the things you need to do when your child falls asleep, and the more agitated you become, the less likely it is for your child to fall asleep. Aversion may rise with the return of your period or if you’re pregnant. It may also be a mechanism to kickstart a process to wean your child, as it happens for other mammals. For example, lionesses hit cubs, and sows roll over to hide their teat line, often crushing piglets to death.
Thankfully I am not a sow, and Yate’s words helped me understand why I felt so conflicted and ashamed. I eventually told Lorenzo that I was tired, asked him to say goodbye to tití and said I would hug him to sleep instead. I had dreaded this process, but it worked relatively quickly. Putting Lorenzo to sleep became a bonding experience again, this time by reading books together and falling asleep in each others’ arms.
I suspect I had to fight my internal demons to be self-assured with Lorenzo. I had to shed the idea of a self-sacrificing Madonna willing to give up on her life to nurture her child. That image clashed with my reality as a full-time journalist without a regular salary and my family’s primary breadwinner. The 21st-century context clashed with old ideas of sacrifice I was raised in, just as Yate had told me.
“I wish I had understood mothering as another full-time job,” she says. “For every child, I was signing a contract for the next 10 to 20 years. I wouldn’t get any benefits per se, no monetary incentives or rewards, I wouldn’t have any time by myself, and I would be unhappy with the job … would I still do it? It’s a big leap.”
Now over to you: Did you or those around you ever experience symptoms that you could relate to breastfeeding aversion? Does having this information help you rethink some of what you’ve gone through? Zainab Yate is a member of this community, so feel free to ask her questions here, below the story, and get a conversation going about the things that make our breastfeeding easier or more difficult.
Also, if you’d like to read more about breastfeeding, I wrote a piece a few months ago in which I debunked several common myths around breastfeeding, including the most damaging one: breast milk is free. (Sure, if you think that a mother’s time is worth nothing…!)
What I’ve been reading
This lovely, 10-panel comic by Athena Naylor about how she changed her mind about children when her best friend became a mother. “I’m not going to lie, she makes me want to fight that much harder for a better planet,” she writes. It made me think about all of you who are not parents or carers but that care a lot about children and having better policies in place for their (and everybody else’s) good.
What I’ve been listening to
Apropos of feeling touched out, this podcast addresses a great myth about having children: women’s libido lowers while men continue wanting sex. By talking to a same-sex couple, Belgian psychologist Esther Perel deconstructs the idea of post-parenthood sexuality depending on sex-at-birth and even answers the one-million-dollar question: How often should we be having sex? Hint: there are no absolutes, and your concern is most likely not about sex anyways.
What I’ve been watching
I loved watching Eric Carle, Picture Writer: The Art of the Picture Book, a 32-minute documentary on German-US children’s book author Eric Carle, who died last week at 91. Director Kate Geis shows Carle in his studio as he goes through an easily replicable collage process to remake his world-famous caterpillar. Carle also talks about long childhood walks with his father in nature and how much they spoke about insects. “This was an education. It didn’t appear to me as education, it was just a lot of fun!” He says that his mother always told people not to disturb him while he was painting, protecting his creativity from a very young age. Recommended – hoping the link works in your part of the world.
What members are saying
Several members commented on the story I wrote last week about milestones and why I dislike them. “To be honest, I absolutely loved milestones when my first child was born. I used them to know what was coming next, to get to know my child. As she got older, about 15 months, we learned to look at her and not the books. We started to trust our parenting skills/instinct and she was more able to communicate. With my second child I have never been looking for milestones, only trusting our gut and what we see,” wrote Wies. “Milestones don’t really matter,” wrote Hanny. What matters is: “seeing your child having fun, learning and developing at their own pace.” Where do you stand? I would love to hear from you. You can chime in under the piece, here, by logging in first.
With love and care,
📣 Catarina Fernandes Martins, a member of this community, edited and improved this newsletter with lots of love, logging in from Castelo Branco, Portugal. Thanks, Cata! (If there are mistakes, they are my fault, not hers!)