with Maternal Mental Health Specialist Johanna Phillips
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
- Myths About Breastfeeding
- Breastfeeding’s Effect On Mental Health
- When Breastfeeding Doesn’t Go As Planned
- Working Through Feelings of Guilt And Failure
- How To Reply When Constantly Asked If You’re Breastfeeding
If you’re an expecting mother, are you set on breastfeeding? If you already have a child, did your feeding journey go as expected? As moms, we often feel a lot of pressure to get everything right, and feeding is often our first introduction to this. Pressure comes from both ourselves and others to make our feeding experience go according to plan. Johanna Phillips, a registered social worker and one of our Wellness Center Therapists, is here to talk with us about breastfeeding and mental health.
Myths About Breastfeeding
This is going to be so easy! It’s natural. That is the biggest misconception. Breastfeeding is a learned skill. Professionals get continuing education and teach this skill. You don’t just magically know how to do it the moment your baby is born.
“Almost instantly you realize, ‘I have no idea how to do this,’” Johanna said. What other skill in life are you expected to know the very first time you do it? Your kid gets a tricycle and then training wheels before they have to ride a two-wheeler. But you’re supposed to know how to use a part of your body that has never produced food before to keep another human alive on the first try.
“Breast is best” is an ad campaign that came about when everyone was using formula and breastfeeding was at an all time low. There was a study conducted on breastfeeding and then an ad campaign promoting breastfeeding, and that’s where a lot of this judgment and assumption comes from.
I’m going to dispel the myth. Your baby needs to eat. Fed is best. A mentally and emotionally healthy mom and baby is best.
If breastfeeding isn’t an option for you, or you’re struggling with the valid difficulties of new parenthood, that’s okay. There are other options. And it doesn’t have to be so black and white. Feeding is often talked about in all or nothing language or exclusive breastfeeding or formula feeding, but there are lots of combined options in between if that’s what you choose.
When my boys were babies, no matter what question I posed to the mom groups on Facebook, the answer seemed to be to put breastmilk on it. My baby has eczema, put breastmilk on it. My baby has pink eyes, put breastmilk in it. My baby has a diaper rash, put breastmilk on it. Breastfeeding isn’t a cure-all.
Very early on there are some benefits of breastfeeding like it’s easier for baby’s stomach to digest. But long term you’re not harming your child because you choose to use a bottle. Emily Oster goes through extensive research on this in her New York Times bestselling book called Cribsheet, I highly recommend you read it.
Breastfeeding’s Effect On Mental Health
“There have been many studies done on the benefits of breastmilk,” Johanna said. “Studies have shown, it can increase bonding with your baby, it can decrease stress, it can decrease the risk of postpartum depression.”
However, what these studies often don’t take into account is the circumstance. While a positive breastfeeding experience does have positive effects on mental health, if you’re having a negative breastfeeding experience for any reason, it can have the opposite effect.
When Breastfeeding Doesn’t Go As Planned
“A lot of us go into having our first or second child with expectations of this is how my journey is going to go, and this is how I want it to go. And I’m going to do everything I can to make sure it goes that way, and then when we’re faced with differences, it shakes us to our core,” Johanna explained.
But Johanna and I both struggled breastfeeding our first babies. I’m a recovering perfectionist, and I’ve always been able to control what I decided I was going to do. So, I decided I would breastfeed my son.
And then one night my breasts became incredibly engorged. My son was in a hungry rage. He wasn’t getting milk, and I was determined not to use a bottle. I called the midwives in the middle of the night and learned to express milk from my breast to feed him through a tube.
At his next doctor’s appointment, he was underweight. Then I had to start pumping between feedings, so I could make sure I had extra milk to give him at every feeding. For the first four months of his life all I did was pump or feed.
My second child was a large baby, so supplementing with a bottle until my milk came in was never optional. But I was fine with it from the beginning, and being more flexible about how we fed the baby made for a different experience.
Johanna’s daughter cried the whole time she was awake, and as a new mom, Johanna didn’t know that wasn’t normal. It took three months of doctors saying the baby had colic, or her stomach would develop before finally there was blood in her stool.
She was allergic to something in Johanna’s breastmilk, and her insides had been bleeding the whole time doctors were saying she’d get used to it. Johanna’s options were to go on a special diet or bottle feed.
But she’d planned to breastfeed and was convinced this is what she needed to do. She tried the special diet until finally, her partner helped her realize she didn’t need to put herself through that.
As a first-time mom, we’ve set expectations for a role we have no experience with, so as we gain experience in that role, we have to be flexible to adapt. Otherwise, we’re clinging to expectations we set with no data.
Working Through Feelings of Guilt And Failure
“One of the main pieces for me was trying to separate my values and society’s values,” Johanna stated. “I had to really take a minute and think about what is important to me and what is important to my family? What values do we hold?”
She realized she valued bonding with her children and mental health, and her family valued mental health as well. Going on a special diet to breastfeed made it something to suffer through, so she wasn’t bonding with her children. And it wasn’t helping her mental health at all.
It didn’t align with her values, so it was easy to let go of.
“Another piece for me was media consumption,” Johanna said. A lot of the moms’ groups she was in actually made things harder for her, so she did a social media purge. She found a community that really felt supportive.
Breastfeeding also doesn’t have to be all or nothing. My second child needed to supplement with a bottle from the beginning. We didn’t bond less during feedings.
But it doesn’t even have to be that black and white. Maybe you breastfeed when you can but allow your partner to feed with a bottle when you’re exhausted and having a hard day. Or maybe you primarily bottle feed but breastfeed at bedtime. Whatever works for you and your family.
How To Reply When Constantly Asked If You’re Breastfeeding
“You don’t owe anybody an explanation for what you are doing. You get to decide what kind of information you’re going to provide if any,” Johnna said. You can answer it however you want to.
“I don’t want to talk about it” is a fair answer. But if you’re comfortable discussing it’s fine to answer it with no explanation or as much additional information as you want to provide. You don’t owe anyone answers, so there isn’t a wrong response.
If you’re struggling with guilt or anxiety over feeding—or other parenting decisions—you can find a professional to help you identify the values most important for you and your family and really work through this at the wellness center.
Johanna is a Registered Social Worker and holds a Masters of Counselling Psychology. She has been working in the field of mental health and trauma for the past 13 years, and after the birth of her two children, Johanna has developed a passion for working with families through their pregnancy and postpartum journey.
Johanna is experienced with different challenges relating to birth trauma, sexual wellness and trauma, body image and self-confidence, postpartum depression and anxiety, loss of identity, and other unique challenges that arise as you transition into motherhood.