Emotional & psychological aspects of breastfeeding

From the women we spoke to, it seemed that breastfeeding was as much about emotions as it was about the physical transfer of breast milk from mother to baby. It was an emotional roller coaster, especially at specific times like getting started, when dealing with difficulties and weaning. There were great highs when things were going well and the women were feeling confident and lows that could be devastating when they were not. One woman said,

“It's a very emotional time. I think your hormones are all over the place after birth”.

Many people talked about the satisfaction and joy of breastfeeding or watching their wife/partner breastfeeding. Many women talked about the strong emotional bond that developed between them and their baby and they were proud that they had managed to sustain and nurture another person.

Many women talked about growing in confidence as their breastfeeding progressed and their baby thrived and was happy, and as their family grew in size. Some women talked about being embarrassed and lacking in confidence with their first child but being more relaxed and easy going with their second. Some felt that the hands-on approach of some midwives crossed personal boundaries and did not help their confidence (see 'Positioning and attaching/latching the baby at the breast' and 'Support from hospital staff').

Several women talked about simply needing reassurance and eventually developing the confidence to follow their own instincts. Breastfeeding was, for many women, a powerful symbol of their new role as mothers but sometimes when it didn't happen quite as they had hoped they talked about feeling guilty or disappointed that they had failed to live up to their own expectations of being a mother. Several women made comments similar to this woman's'

“Breastfeeding is so wound up in your emotions and your psyche if somebody puts a question mark of doubt in your mind it is going to have a negative effect even if you think it won't.”

For example, one young woman, whose six week old baby had not had a dirty nappy for a few days, was told by her doctor to give a bottle of water to her baby. He said that her milk was too thick on account of her not drinking much water herself. She preferred tea. It was clear that the doctor's comments had undermined her confidence in her milk, because she said,

“I'm going to keep giving her water because there is obviously something wrong with my milk”.*

Many talked about adjusting to their loss of independence and some talked about getting their body back at the time of weaning. One woman, who found breastfeeding physically and emotionally hard work, said that she had never heard the psychological impact of breastfeeding discussed by health professionals.

A few women talked about the grief of having a sick baby and the psychological benefits of being able to focus on providing breast milk for her/him. It gave them the satisfaction of feeling that they could do something.

Many women talked about anxiety and being anxious for a variety of reasons. Some women were anxious when they were separated from their baby after the birth and unable to breastfeed straight away (see 'Dealing with difficult times' and 'The first breastfeed'). Others, especially first time mothers, felt anxious about the responsibility of looking after a baby (see 'Going home with a breastfed baby'). One woman laughed at herself for being so concerned about germs that she would not take her baby out of the house for the first couple of weeks and then, when she did, she wiped the supermarket trolley with wet wipes before putting her baby into it. Some women, who were away from family and friends, were very lonely and this loneliness sometimes affected their ability to breastfeed their babies.

Several women prematurely weaned their baby onto infant formula because of circumstances at the time but later regretted it (see 'Breastfeeding and working'). Many said that they felt guilty and like a failure when breastfeeding did not go according to expectations (see 'Getting support for breastfeeding' and 'Monitoring baby's growth'). One said that she felt jealous when she saw other women happily breastfeeding. Another, who was unable to breastfeed her baby who had a cleft palate, said that it was painful to watch other breastfeeding women at a mother and tots group (see Interview 13 above). A few women felt like a failure because their birth experience had not been what they planned and so they focused on their breastfeeding experience as a sort of compensation (see 'Dealing with difficult times').

A few women described their emotions as having a strong physical component. For example, one woman talked about taking her sick baby out of his cot and curling up together like spoons so that it felt as though they were still physically connected (see 'The first breastfeed'). This same woman talked about breastfeeding being associated with closeness which she described as “a warmth in the belly”. Another woman talked about how her previously breastfed baby suddenly decided to breastfeed again after a long period of tube and cup feeding in hospital and the relief could be seen in her gestures and posture (see 'When extra care is needed for mother and/or baby'). One woman gave a very graphic description of how her milk let-down even when her baby was not with her.

Some of the more unusual emotional reactions included a few women who talked about losing or taking control of the situation. One woman said:

“I felt quite humiliated almost … I remember thinking before you have a baby you have bodily fluids but somehow they're more kept away or discreet or something, and then you suddenly have a baby and it's like bodily fluids are everywhere. There's baby posset [regurgitated milk], there's milk coming out of your breasts everywhere, you're bleeding after the birth and it just seemed like suddenly I'd kind of gone back to this state of nature or something and I didn't feel like, kind of, the modern professional woman I'd felt before.”

*Footnote: It is quite normal for a breastfed baby to have several dirty nappies a day or to go for several days without one. It is normal for a breastfed baby over six weeks old to go for up to ten days without a dirty nappy. Babies who are being breastfed without restriction do not need extra water. Mothers should drink to satisfy their thirst and it does not always have to be water.

Last reviewed November 2018.
Last updated September 2015



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