Breastfeeding is always one thing that has worked well for me. I should clarify that “worked” includes cringing through the early days (or with nursling 1 weeks) of totally normal nipple tenderness (tenderness is an understatement), enduring oversupply for weeks with nursling 2 and months with nursling 1 and, working our way through the “biting” phase, and more recently, battling nipple thrush (which is rather painful). Still for the most part, breastfeeding has been comfortable, easy and joyful. But mental illness throws a spanner in the works, and I cannot separate my breastfeeding journey from my mental health journey. I want to share with you breastfeeding through mental illness has been like for me.
I was always adamant that I would breastfeed my babies. The more we learn about human breast milk the more we discover that it is quite literally the perfect food for human babies. The WHO’s recommendation is to breastfeed for 2 years and beyond. I wasn’t sure that I’d quite make it that far, but I was going to try (and we’re almost there).
When nursling 1 was born I fell in love with her straight away. I know this doesn’t happen for everyone, and that is fine, but for us some combination of having a natural labour and birth with all the rushes of oxytocin and other hormones just as nature intended, and God’s blessing it did for us, for which I am very grateful. Breastfeeding didn’t happen for us straight away after birth, but it came together over the first few days and soon we were pros. For me, breastfeeding solidified the bond that had begun in the moments after birth, and it would become an important anchor through my PND journey.
I know that many mums who have mental health struggles also struggle with bonding and attachment. At times, during PND it was very hard to feel anything positive at all, even love for Nursling 1. But somehow, sometimes, breastfeeding seemed to have the power to break through that, particularly when she would then contentedly fall asleep on me, affection for her would rush back. I think it helped her form a secure attachment too.
At times not even breastfeeding could shift the dark cloud, and sometimes at those times I didn’t want to feed her at all. I didn’t want to touch her at all. I found a way to breastfeed her, side-lying so that only her mouth was touching me, nothing else.
Breastfeeding was an anchor to my baby. At times, when all I really wanted to do was run away, I told myself that she needed me to feed her, at least for the first 6 months, and after that point I told myself she wasn’t ready to give it up yet. And just knowing that in at least one way I was most definitely wanted and needed by her helped me to keep pushing on.
As the depression began to lift and I began to enjoy her more and more, breastfeeding still remained a way to keep us close, even when after falling pregnant and my supply dropped, it wasn’t providing much in the way of nutrition.
Then, when the depression came back later in pregnancy, it once again helped me feel affection for her again when I felt the worst. It also helped launch labour, and then softened the blow of having to share me with another little person once Nursling 2 came along.