Breastfeeding anxiety isn’t often talked about, but is very real. For first-time mothers, nursing a baby is something that you have never done before—or often even seen anyone do—yet you are expected to do it and do it well, because you are the baby’s only source of food and fluids. The health care system speaks emphatically about the importance of breastfeeding to infant health (though it often falls short in real hands-on support).
This message, on top of social pressure, personal feelings, and powerful hormonal changes, makes it understandable that pregnant and new mothers would have anxiety over breastfeeding.
Congratulations on your bundle of joy, and welcome to depths of love and fear that you’ve never experienced!
Anxiety over breastfeeding can be mild and fleeting, or severe and paralyzing. Mothers often expect that curling up with their baby’s rosy cheeks against their breast will be a relaxing and bonding experience (and it can be!).
But for some mothers, there’s a sense of dread that they’re doing everything wrong and guilt that there’s something wrong with them as mothers for having these feelings. To pile on to that, people may tell you your baby can sense your stress, so you’d better calm down! It’s enough to make a mother feel like no matter how hard she tries, she can’t do anything right.
Almost every new mother feels a certain amount of anxiety, but about 10% of mothers are diagnosed with postpartum anxiety (PPA) that requires mental health care, according to Postpartum Support International.
After a woman gives birth, her body is flooded with hormones, many of which have an impact on her mood, and she is experiencing perhaps the most profound change of her life. Intrusive thoughts, feelings of anger, frustration, hopelessness, and a sense of being paralyzed or trapped can become powerful and unrelenting.
Anxiety About Breastfeeding
Anxiety can cause mothers to stop breastfeeding before they had wanted to, or result in them not enjoying this special time in their lives; it also might put bonding with their baby at risk. Breastfeeding has many benefits, but can bring its own unique set of worries to new mothers. Mothers in one of my online support groups shared these thoughts about breastfeeding and anxiety:
- “I was constantly worried that I wasn’t producing enough milk, even though he had no signs that he wasn’t getting enough. He was meeting all his milestones and he was growing and eating just fine.” —Elizabeth
- “I was anxious over the planning aspect of it—like when I need to pump but I’m on the go and need to get creative with space and storage of milk. Or when I’m with him and know he’ll need to nurse but it will be somewhere crowded, or cold.” —Laura
- Ella struggled with fear her daughter would run out of pumped milk at daycare, even though so far her supply had been fine.
- Letty had oversupply and overactive letdown. “Both of my oldest did not like being drowned by milk in the morning and would scream. By evening when my supply was lower and they had to work for food, they screamed. Getting screamed at for 2/3 of all feeds is exhausting and gave me awful anxiety.”
- “I was doing fine with breastfeeding, but I was scared to nurse in public. I worried I was exposing too much skin.” —Sarah
Tips For Breastfeeding Anxiety
Coping with anxiety can be hard but not insurmountable. Try to remind yourself:
- Breastfeeding is a learned skill; it takes time to master.
- Your feelings are understandable, and you’re not alone.
- Early difficulties with breastfeeding usually get better over time.
- It’s helpful to avoid people who make you feel bad about your legitimate parenting decisions.
- Most people aren’t looking at you or judging your feeding method.
- Your baby doesn’t need you to be a perfect mother—he just needs you!
Self-care is also an important part of addressing anxiety, whether it’s about breastfeeding or anything else. Talk to others about your feelings, and consider a mental health consultation with a professional. Anxiety is very treatable, and facing it head on can bring relief sooner. You deserve to be happy.
A satisfying breastfeeding relationship is something you can cultivate over time, even if it seems difficult and overwhelming right now. The majority of mothers who continue breastfeeding come to enjoy this unique and special time, though it can take 4–6 weeks to feel like you (sort of) know what you’re doing. If your doctor advises medication for anxiety, many are compatible with breastfeeding.
Overcoming Breastfeeding Anxiety
Finding a breastfeeding support group that is compassionate and welcoming can also provide a lot of relief. If one group doesn’t feel right, try a different group. Being surrounded by other mothers who can relate to the same stresses you’re dealing with can be a life-saver, and often you hear solutions to common problems that you may not have thought of.
If you prefer to attend in your pajamas, online groups are also great. Although too much information can be overwhelming, don’t be afraid to consider many different sources of advice; think of it as a buffet of ideas, and take only what seems applicable and helpful to your situation.
If stopping breastfeeding is what’s right for you, congratulate yourself on accomplishing what you set out to do for however long you did it, and move on to infant formula with the knowledge that you are doing what’s best for your whole family. If people are pressuring you to give up breastfeeding but you want to continue, share with them how important it is to you and ask for their support. Many people think they’re being helpful by “letting you off the hook,” and they may not realize that suggesting you stop is making you feel worse.
Take Care Of Yourself
Above all, don’t be afraid to put your needs first sometimes. Your baby needs a healthy, happy mother. Treat yourself with just as much kindness as you would treat a close friend who is struggling, rather than beating yourself up about not being perfect—you’ve never done this before, so how could you be?
You and your baby are both learning together. Be mindful of when your baby is happy, and give yourself credit for that! Is your baby growing and meeting milestones? Congratulations, you’re doing a great job feeding him!
Are you getting enough sleep? If the answer is no, work with your support people to change that. As parents, modeling self-care teaches our children how to care for themselves when they experience difficulties in life.
Remember—your baby does not know how anxious you feel; he only knows that he feels safe and cared for. He won’t remember all the angst of those first months when he grows up. He will remember curling up with you to read books, having snowball fights, feeling your arms around him when he’s sad, and basking in your smile when you’re proud of him.
Lynnette is a mother of three teenagers. When she’s not helping mothers breastfeed, she enjoys baking sourdough bread, gardening, and writing. She has been an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant since 2005, working in private practice, hospital, WIC, and community breastfeeding support settings.