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Breastfeeding can be an amazing experience. Once everything ‘clicks’, you may find that it ends up being one of your favourite parts of your motherhood journey. But despite the wonderful parts, breastfeeding can be TOUGH. Being needed ALL THE TIME, feeling touched out, the mental load of being the only one who can feed your child, sleep deprivation, these things are also part of the breastfeeding experience and can take a toll on your mental health.

We are taking a look at the most common struggles faced by breastfeeding mamas, and how you can navigate them effectively.

The mental load of breastfeeding

‘What time did I last feed?’ ‘How many times will I be awake feeding tonight?’ ‘Is my baby eating enough?’ The mental load of the breastfeeding mum is HUGE. And it’s often one that is shouldered solo, making it feel especially heavy at times. Knowing that you are the only one who can feed your bub, and, often the one who is able to soothe, calm and help them get to sleep is exhausting and can, at times, feel relentless and overwhelming. Knowing you’re not alone is important as is finding support from both inside and outside your immediate family unit. A Mother’s Group, Early Childhood or Maternal Health Care Nurse or other mother/baby groups can be an excellent place to connect with parents experiencing the same mental load that you are. And while they can’t take on the responsibility for you, they can help you to feel less alone. Having other mums who were walking the walk alongside me was absolutely invaluable, especially with my first child. Knowing that I wasn’t the only one awake at 2am (and 3am and 4am), battling poo-explosions and feeling simultaneously the happiest I’ve ever felt and the most exhausted and overwrought, helped immeasurably.

It is important to note that if the mental load is becoming too overwhelming and you are finding yourself really struggling with #mumlife, chatting with a professional for extra support and guidance, can be an absolute lifesaver. This may be your midwife, GP, early childhood nurse, a psychologist or psychiatrist or other health professional. All of these people have been trained in maternal health and wellbeing and can provide you with the support you need to feel a little clearer and more in control.

The impact of hormones

Pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding unleash an absolute avalanche of hormones. And while many subside after birth, there are some levels that continue to fluctuate during breastfeeding which can impact your mood and wellbeing. The primary hormones that we associate with breastfeeding are Prolactin, which helps your breast tissue develop and kick starts milk production and Oxytocin AKA the love hormone. For the most part, these two hormones actually help you feel pretty good but as their levels tend to ebb and flow, a dip, particularly in oxytocin, can leave you feeling a little flat. The best way to boost your oxytocin levels? Getting close with your baby! Cuddling, kissing and breastfeeding are all linked to an increase in oxytocin and thus, a boost to your wellbeing!

Breastfeeding and anxiety

Can breastfeeding cause you to become more anxious? For many new breastfeeding mums, the thought has probably been there. There are just so many things to think about. Add in some of the initial struggles that many mums face: sore nipples, learning to latch baby on properly, regulating milk supply, and it’s no wonder that breastfeeding can seem like an anxiety inducing experience. The good news? Research has actually shown that breastfeeding is associated with improved maternal mental health outcomes” which is great news. The same study however cautions that women who may experience breastfeeding challenges or have an experience that differs from what they were hoping, may experience some anxiety and/or other less positive emotions. The best way to try and ensure a positive experience? Knowledge and support. Breastfeeding is a skill. It doesn’t always come naturally (it didn’t for me!). Preparing before birth and seeking professional support after birth from a qualified lactation specialist can go a long way in helping you to have a positive, enjoyable and, most importantly, anxiety free breastfeeding experience.

Breastfeeding and D-Mer

Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex or D-Mer is a relatively rare condition where women experience intense negative emotions just before their milk lets down. According to The Australian Breastfeeding Association, D-Mer is thought to be the result of “inappropriate activity of a hormone, dopamine, when the let-down reflex is triggered.” D-Mer is very different to PND and/or post natal anxiety as it only occurs just before milk let-down and is absent prior to and afterwards. Women with D-Mer may feel intense sadness, dread, anxiety, irritability or even anger and frustration in the seconds before their milk lets down. Once the letdown has occurred, these emotions will completely dissipate.

While there is no cure for D-Mer, it is generally thought to lessen after about 3 months or at the very least, become more manageable. If you suspect you may experience D-Mer, it can be worth speaking to your caregiver or the ABA about strategies to best manage your symptoms.

When breastfeeding doesn’t work out

The experience most likely to trigger anxiety or depression is often when the breastfeeding experience doesn’t match up to your expectations. Perhaps you imagined yourself exclusively breastfeeding long term or had visions or dozing while your baby suckled blissfully. For a myriad of reasons, breastfeeding sometimes doesn’t work out according to our plans. And this can be a very difficult pill to swallow. Many mums report feelings of failure, anger and like they have been let down by their bodies when breastfeeding doesn’t quite click. It’s important to note that these feelings are completely normal and often, kind of expected. As women, we often put a lot of pressure on ourselves when it comes to motherhood, and breastfeeding is a big part of that. Being able to grieve for what might not have worked and seeking support is key to being able to move forward. I experienced these exact emotions when breastfeeding didn’t go as I had planned with my first child. I was riddled with guilt and anxiety and wondering why it didn’t work for me and what I had done wrong.

I was able to seek support from a wonderful Early Childhood Nurse and psychologist who both supported me in recognising the pressure I had put on myself and how that was now manifesting in self-blame and a feeling of not being a good enough mother. With their support, I was able to work through these feelings and gain a better understanding and appreciation of my body and skill as a mum, regardless of how my breastfeeding journey has unfolded. I went on to successfully breastfeed my next two children but held on to the lessons I had learnt with my first around unrealistic expectations and not putting too much pressure on myself.

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