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,
Irene

📣 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!)

📸 Photo credits and alt-text: sam moody on Pixabay, black and white photo of a child being breastfed.

This is not a space to simply comment. This is where you take part in the community.

12 thoughts on “What negative feelings about breastfeeding tell us about the struggles of motherhood

  1. This was so interesting Irene, thanks.

    Zainab : ‘m interested to know if you have done/come across any research on the ‘touched out’ phenomenon and whether it is linked to constantly being in close physical contact with our children, especially in the earliest years. Is it worse for those who breastfeed, is it common to feel ‘touched out’. Thanks
    Melissa
    BBC science journalist/Author

    1. Hi Melissa,

      I’m afraid I didn’t come across any published literature on being ‘touched out’ while researching my book. However, I have covered it a bit and I’ve used the concept of Skinship extensively in my book, as well as particular categories where mothers feel touched out to explain why it may happen, and why being touched out may trigger aversion too. Some of the areas are looking at ‘personal preferences and needs’, ‘nursling temperament and character’ and ‘sleep interruption and deprivation’. I’m not sure it would be worse if you breastfeed per se, but as breastfeeding necessarily entails skin contact there would be an argument there.

  2. I also experienced breastfeeding aversion due to what I consider abusive behavior by my midwife. One midwife in the hospital I gave birth at pinched, poked and squeezed my breasts so hard that it gave me bruises. She never asked for my consent to touch me in the first place, and didn’t stop when I told her to. She also refused to help me when I had engorgement and blocked milk ducts. She refused to explain me how to manually express milk, and also refused to let me use the hospital pump, because she decided to go to sleep instead (while she was on night duty). My engorgement was so bad I could barely move my arms because I had pain everywhere. Moreover, she called me whiny when I asked her for advice for intense pain while nursing. It was almost like she enjoyed to see me suffer and having power over me while I was at my most vulnerable just after giving birth.

    Every time I tried to nurse after this experience I had flashbacks of this midwife’s behavior and I was completely unable to focus on my baby. I eventually stopped nursing after 2 months, because I just couldn’t take it. I believe that without this traumatic experience I would have nursed much longer.

    Are such experiences common or was my case a rare exception?

    1. I am so sorry to read of your traumatic experience. Unfortunately, it isn’t a rare occurrence that women do not consent to being touched in ways that are uncomfortable or painful (obstetric violence is now a well known phenomenon), and also that they receive very poor postnatal breastfeeding support.

      I know many mothers that had a terribly painful and challenging breastfeeding start, that was unaided – even worsened – by postnatal staff.

      It is certainly a factor in the breastfeeding experience. We know a lot of birth interventions impact breastfeeding in many ways, and I try to raise awareness that how the breastfeeding journey starts affects the trajectory of being able to continue. Trauma re-lived is so difficult to cope with, and breastfeeding sessions are so frequent in the first few months it is no wonder you had to stop.

      Some mothers find rebirthing useful for closure and healing. Also, having a debriefing about the hospital experience can help – if you still feel angry and upset about what has happened to you

    2. What a traumatic experience!
      You are not alone in this. A lot of women have traumatic experiences around giving birth and breastfeeding, especially in hospitals.
      I think it’s about the protocols they work with and the expectations of the mother on forehand.
      I believe it would help if we have realistic expectations of what giving birth and breastfeeding is like, we will have a lot less of the traumatic experiences.
      Unforturnately this won’t help you. What’s done is done. You have to deal with your feelings.
      – Accept your feelings, it’s oke to feel them. And then try to let it go, there’s nothing you can do to change the past. (easier said then done, I know)
      – Talk about it, write about it and have selfcompassion. This helps you to process the feelings in your brain and give them a less prominent place.

      1. This is wonderful advice and it can help over time to process emotions this way. I found, personally, it took me about 4 years to ‘let go’ of a traumatic birth and writing the book of course was part of it.

    3. Dear Jenny, thanks so much for sharing your experience, and sorry you went through that. As Zainab says, obstetric violence is unfortunately quite common. And as Hanny points out, while so much can be said about what needs to change systemically, that won’t help you as you’ve already experienced this.
      May I ask where you are based and whether you could complain to someone about the incident?
      I am working on a story on obstetric violence and I may get back to you with some more specific questions – if you are interested in sharing further.
      Thankns againn for your comment and all the best to you.

  3. Thank you for all that you do Irene. It was lovely to talk to you and refreshing to be able to be honest and candid about our experiences. I really appreciate having any platform to raise awareness of aversion and also women’s lived narratives of motherhood that do not fit into what the mainstream project as normal.

  4. Thank you so much Irene for another inspiring story.
    And congratulations Zainab for having managed to “investigate” your discomfort.
    As a 1yo mum, I can’t properly say whether I have felt breastfeeding aversion or not. Sometimes I think that my daughter just cares for my boobs and I am somehow jealous of my partner who can play with her without having to offer the breast… sometimes, over the months, even every hour!
    Actually, the hardest thing was going back to work. I didn’t expect it at all. Resuming my position actually meant realising that I could not be a full time mother and a full time employee. It might sound naive, but I really believed I could handle both effectively.

    1. Hey Viviana,
      Thanks for your comment!
      I totally hear you re being jealous of being able to play without the boob getting in between. The time will come though, so take advantage of the ways it can be useful for now! (Talking from my personal experience here…!)
      As for the idea of being a full-time mother and full-time employee, this is a such a good point you raise. I think that unless paid maternity leave reflects what we wish for in terms of breastfeeding, then it’s very hard to make breastfeeding possible.
      I remember this thing I saw on Twitter, which I think says a lot about who pays when trying to do both… Check out how little free time a working, breastfeeding mother gets: https://twitter.com/beeonaposy/status/1215830967719485441
      Can I ask you how old your baby was when you had to resume work?

    2. Oh how I wish I could have told that to myself on so many occasions. To this day I have to remind myself that I cannot do both mothering full time and work full time. I see the fallout from challenge everywhere, but rarely is it admitted (or perhaps recognised). Somehow, it is portrayed as possible. Perhaps because so many struggle in silence to keep all the balls juggling, and when the balls are dropped, doing 2 full time jobs isn’t what is blamed? I don’t know but I salute you for saying this Vava!

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