Maternal Mental Health: Figuring Out If Breastfeeding Works For You And Your Baby

We have to talk about maternal mental health. If breastfeeding isn't working -- if the process is overtaking mothering -- then breast stops being best.
01/10/2013 03:28pm ET | Updated March 12, 2013
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A Muslim Rohingya woman holds her baby inside the Bawdupha Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp located on the outskirts of Sittwe, capital of Myanmar's western Rakhine state on October 30, 2012. At least 88 people have been killed in sectarian bloodshed in Myanmar this month, the authorities said, with more than 26,000 others forced to flee a wave of rioting and arson. AFP PHOTO/ Soe Than WIN (Photo credit should read Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images)

"Someone's hungry," she said, opening the door slightly. The hallway light, fluorescent at best, slanted in, revealing her shock of curly hair, her midnight blue scrubs, her strong arms wrapped around my third baby.

Pulling myself up, I reached for him, held him close, breathed him in.

His body wrapped tightly in a white hospital blanket, his head covered in the same blue, pink and white striped cap all three of my children wore.

Cradling him in one arm, sipping water with the other, I settled in to feed him.

While I slipped into that feeding with ease, breastfeeding did not come easily to me.

I struggled with my firstborn until she was four months old.

Her cries summoned me to her, but I'd take slow steps into her buttercup nursery.

I'd stand flat-footed by her crib and let my tears fall.

Hands shaking, I'd reach down, scoop her up. One hand the length of her back.

Nursing was difficult, endless and painful. And I was unprepared, overwhelmed and under-rested.

Four years and two babies later, things were different.

Here's one reason why:

With my firstborn, all I heard was how I had to breastfeed. How it was best for my baby. How there was no other choice.

I felt small and isolated.

I didn't know how to reach out for help. A lactation consultant met with me for 20 minutes at the hospital and encouraged me to pump every three hours! Never give a bottle! Because breast is best

And I believed her. Because what did I know?

Four endless, tearful months later, I called the hospital. "I need help," my voice shook over the line. My message was heard loud and clear.

I dressed my daughter carefully that morning, slipping her socks on one at a time, buttoning her tiny pink one-piece carefully. She was so very small, so very delicate.

Fingers crossed that we'd get answers that day, I carried her impossibly heavy car seat through the long hospital halls, beneath those same unforgiving lights.

We walked into a small room, faced a nurse with stunning blue eyes framed in laugh lines. Her graying curls tucked behind her ears, she sat on the edge of her seat. She was ready for us.

I sat at the edge of my seat as well, but I was anything but ready.

The clock ticks filled the space between us. "Take her out," she finally said.

Sitting up straight, back stiff, I pulled my baby close, and tried to feed her. She latched and drank; we all breathed.

One heartbeat later, she unlatched and started wailing. That red face, those clenched fists, the tears welling at the edge of her tiny eyes.

My own tears streaming, I pulled her to my chest.

Her tiny feet curled in, her bottom scrunched out.

I placed her pacifier in her mouth, not yet ready to start another round, holding it in place until the soothing sound of her lips taking over rang sweetly in my ears.

Once again, in unison, we all released our held breaths.

The nurse, who had mothered and grandmothered and taught so very many mothers and babies and had definitely earned the right to say she has seen absolutely everything, met my teary, glazed eyes.

Smiling between red tinged lips, she said, "Honey, it's time to get some formula."

It was the first time I was told I had choices, that my mental health mattered, and needed to be addressed.

On the popular parenting guru, Dr.Sears's, website the first topic within feeding your baby is "Why Breast Is Best."

The medical world has spoken. Nutritionally, breastfeeding is best for babies. I wholeheartedly agree with this.

But in a country where so many of our babies are born in hospitals under watchful eyes and trained hands, we're not teaching our mothers to listen to their bodies or their minds.

And emotionally, in order to survive, thrive and bond, the mother's mental health absolutely needs to come first.

If breastfeeding isn't working, if the process is overtaking mothering, then breast stops being best.

I say this three babies later -- one breast and bottle fed, one almost exclusively bottle fed, and one exclusively breast fed well past his first year.

When my other children were born, I knew our path would have to look different.

I knew to ask questions, ask for resources, demand nurse and lactation consultant support and help and time.

And I got it.

That night when the curly-haired nurse with the kind eyes passed my son from her manicured hands, etched with years and work and more mothering experience than I will ever know, into my unlined, unmanicured, bare ones, she didn't rush off.

She settled by my side.

She talked to me. Asked how I was feeling. Told me her story. Because I told her mine.

We have to talk about maternal, and every type, of mental health.

Make it the norm to talk about what's hard, what's easy, what's working, what's not and that it's okay to ask for help and to change course if what we're doing isn't working.

Breast is best isn't the message that mothers need to hear. It's hard for everyone, you're not alone, there's more than one answer, and ask for help is.