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When Breastfeeding doesn't work out – Beating the Guilt

Updated: May 24, 2023

It’s natural, they said. It’s best for your baby, they said. It will be the most wonderful bonding experience, they said.

So why do you feel an emotional wreck, exhausted and with damaged and really painful nipples? You’d take labour pain again over this. You’re feeding all day and all night without so much as a break long enough to empty your bladder. You’re worried you don’t have enough milk. Your baby fusses and pulls away from your breast every time you try to breastfeed and you’re starting to feel like he doesn’t like you. Or perhaps you feel that you really don’t enjoy the sensations of breastfeeding but feel ashamed to be feeling this way. You want to feel differently but it just doesn’t feel right for you. You’ve asked multiple people for help but nothing seems to really help.

Overcoming breastfeeding guilt

You’re exhausted. Beaten. But you are not a failure. Parenting is one of the toughest jobs. Ever. You’re making multiple judgement calls with a new baby – every hour of every day. When to feed, when to change, how to settle him and where he will sleep, what to have for dinner yourself, appointments to fit in, time to rest (ha!), keeping the house in some kind of liveable order and this is just in one day! It’s a constant juggling act that requires superhuman powers at the best of times!

You need to make the choices that feel right for you and your baby. But when feeding choices turn out to be very different to what you had anticipated, that’s when guilt, frustration, disappointment and even envy for others starts to set in. Yes, breastfeeding is the most natural way to feed your baby but sometimes, for some mums, their breastfeeding experience is one challenge followed by another.

Breastfeeding problems

Whether you're physically unable to make enough breastmilk for your baby or your baby has significant difficulty latching, feeling unable to satisfy your baby with each breastfeed is a demoralising challenge that becomes all-consuming and may necessitate your decision to supplement with formula. This does not make you a failure. It makes you a mum who’s brave enough to make some tough calls when you really didn’t want to.

When you’ve done everything you possibly can, dedicating yourself to feeding and pumping, pumping and feeding, but your breasts still don’t seem to make enough milk it can feel like you’ve come to the end of the road – physically and emotionally. It doesn’t seem fair. But it doesn’t have to mean you should give up on breastfeeding altogether.

Low breastmilk supply

Any amount of breastmilk you can provide for your baby is a precious gift of health and well-being. Many mums think they don’t have enough milk when in fact they do. Your low milk supply may be circumstantial due to poor attachment, stress and tiredness, conflicting information across multiple health practitioners and loss of confidence. A session with a lactation consultant may help you to understand the cause of your feeding concerns and help you understand how to increase breastmilk supply.

If your breasts aren’t making enough milk to satisfy your baby at every feed you can still be very proud of the milk you can give your baby. Breastfeeding is so much more than providing milk. It provides comfort when your baby is tired, immunity protection when your baby is unwell, and a sense of security when your baby is unsettled. Breastfeeding also helps shape a baby’s palate for good speech development, teeth spacing, jaw development and so much more!

Even if there is just one breastfeed in the day that feels enjoyable for you, try to embrace this feed as your special time with your baby. Your breasts are usually fullest first thing in the morning and this is the feed that is often the calmest and most satisfying for both mum and baby. Breastfeeding with a low milk supply will look so different to what you had hoped for yet needing to give your baby Expressed Breast Milk (EBM) and/or formula with many or all feeds does not automatically write off your ability to breastfeed at all. EBM and formula can be given at the breast via a supplemental nursing system (SNS) or supply line – a slightly fiddly option but it means you get to enjoy the connection that breastfeeding brings whilst enabling your baby a satisfying feed at the breast.

Alternating breastmilk and bottle

Perhaps bottle feeding is a better choice for you? Giving bottle feeds doesn’t have to mean that your baby can no longer have breast contact. Consider alternating from your breast to the bottle throughout each feed.

Donor breastmilk and formula feeding

Expressing your milk takes much time and energy both physically and emotionally and if you’re unable to express enough milk for your baby’s needs this can exacerbate your feelings of inadequacy. Consider asking a friend or donor to donate some EBM for a short time whilst you work out your baby’s feeding needs. The feelings of guilt surrounding giving your baby formula when you struggle to make enough milk can be so intense but if it is the right option for you then it is OK. You are always going to do the best you can for your baby.

​Relieving stress during breastfeeding challenges

Skin-to-skin cuddle time with your baby is the number one way for bonding and healing between a mother and baby. When breastfeeding feels overwhelming, painful or just frustrating holding your baby close to you without the pressure to breastfeed helps to lower your stress hormones and helps you enjoy your baby’s contact. Wearing your baby in a sling or baby carrier is a great way for hands-free cuddle time and is really calming for both mum, dad and baby.

Take back what you feel you’ve lost through difficult breastfeeding in fun and interesting ways. Take a shower or bath together and enjoy some skin-to-skin time without any pressures or expectations on yourself. Use nappy changes as a way to connect with touch, to have a ‘chat’ and a tickle, a gentle massage. Touch is the ultimate bonding tool.

Overcoming the Emotional Challenges of Breastfeeding

As a mother, it can feel that breastfeeding will complete your identity but when it becomes so challenging that you feel you can no longer continue, that identity can feel lost. Feelings of guilt, resentment, loss, anger and disappointment can very quickly consume you. These are not feelings expected to be connected with mothering a newborn and so you are left feeling even more guilty for feeling the way you do. Allow yourself time to grieve the loss of your breastfeeding ideal. It’s okay to feel the way you do but it’s important not to let your feeding outcomes and choices define you as a mother.

Mummy guilt is a real thing. It’s strong and it can hurt for a long time. Initial frustration and disappointment can quickly turn to guilt and feelings of inadequacy. Your baby’s needs are simple – to be fed, loved and nurtured. You will always do the best you can to provide this for your baby. The choice of whether or not to continue to breastfeed may or may not be within your control – physically or mentally. Your mental health is vital to your baby’s ongoing development and well-being. There are few things more detrimental to your mental state than a traumatic breastfeeding experience. Sometimes taking a break from the pressure and hardship of your challenges can help you to rekindle your bond with your baby and give you the renewed strength to try again. It’s never too late to turn your challenging breastfeeding experience around.

Finding your positive breastfeeding experience

Take some time to find your positive breastfeeding experience. What does it look like for you? Maybe it looks like breast contact with bottle top-ups of expressed breast milk or formula; expressing and bottle feeding your breastmilk; one breastfeed a day and bottle feeding for the rest of the day; or something very different. Find what combination of breastfeeding, expressing, and bottle feeding of breast milk or formula works best for you in a way that you and your baby feel relaxed and satisfied with your feeding experience. Find your normal and let it be OK.

It takes incredible courage to make the decision to move away from your breastfeeding ideals. Whatever you decide is the right thing for you and your baby IS the right thing for you to do. Your positive breastfeeding experience may not be exclusive breastfeeding. Let that be OK. Try not to feel let down by your body. Allow yourself to be happy with your body’s achievements to this point and in what it will continue to do for your baby. You tried your hardest and your best is ALWAYS good enough!

Breastfeeding support

When you’re finding breastfeeding challenging or you’re just not sure about things try to seek help before your challenges become all-consuming. You may just need some peer support and reassurance to keep going or you may need more professional support. It’s vital to find the right help to match your needs so that you can feel confident in continuing to breastfeed and in the decisions you need to make. Your GP, Obstetrician or Paediatrician may not be the most knowledgeable about helping you to manage your specific breastfeeding challenges. Seek advice first from a breastfeeding counsellor or Lactation Consultant and they will guide you as to the need for further input from your doctor.

The Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA) has counsellors and breastfeeding support groups that are easily accessible. You will likely have a group in your local area. These counsellors are all mums who have breastfed and have experience in supporting other breastfeeding mums however they may or may not have professional breastfeeding qualifications.

A Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) is an internationally qualified breastfeeding specialist who has specialist knowledge and experience in all breastfeeding challenges and how to help you manage them. You may find an IBCLC in your hospital or perhaps your Maternal and Child Health service for free. Many IBCLCs work in private practice and will visit you and your baby in your home and work with you to make a plan to reach your breastfeeding goals. No referral is needed and fees are generally reasonable.

Preparing for a Better Breastfeeding Experience

There is some good news! A negative breastfeeding experience does not necessarily set the tone for your breastfeeding future. Just as each pregnancy can be very different so, too, each breastfeeding journey is likely to be a little different. With your subsequent babies try to prepare early for breastfeeding. Talk to a Lactation Consultant about your previous experience to unpack your difficulties and their causes so you can feel better prepared and more confident to breastfeed again.

Rowena Gray is a mother to 3 young daughters, a nurse, a midwife and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC). She has been both a consumer and giver of copious amounts of breastfeeding advice! She has a private practice in Melbourne.

Rowena is also the author of ‘Born to Breastfeed - the first six weeks and beyond

Rowena is Parents You've Got This Lactation Expert and presents at our Baby Basics Masterclass.

Mother struggling to breastfeed | Parents You've Got This


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