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Breastfeeding Agitation

Hilary Flower
St. Petersburg FL USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 39 No. 4, August-September 2003, pp. 90-91.

It’s easy to imagine that as a confirmed breastfeeding mother who has helped many mothers overcome their own problems, that nothing could possibly change your own experience of breastfeeding. But look out: breastfeeding agitation can strike anyone. Having a clear view of breastfeeding agitation can help you whether you are supporting another mother or are moving toward tandem territory yourself. The following is adapted from ADVENTURES IN TANDEM NURSING: BREASTFEEDING DURING PREGNANCY AND BEYOND, La Leche League International’s newest publication.

Breastfeeding agitation is no fun, and pregnancy seems to be a particularly common time for breastfeeding agitation to strike (affecting roughly one-third of pregnant and breastfeeding mothers). Some pregnant mothers can tell you exactly what week the agitation set in for them, and although it differs from woman to woman, mid-pregnancy seems to be a common time of onset. Many women find that the agitation abates in late pregnancy, while others find that this is when it’s most intense.

Still, agitation can strike any mother who is nursing an older child, even without a new pregnancy. During tandem nursing it tends to be triggered only by the older child’s suckling, or it may happen only when both children nurse simultaneously. Tandem nursing mothers who subsequently become pregnant may be particularly likely to get it. In many cases the trigger may have little to do with pregnancy or tandem nursing.

The biggest issue I faced was very unexpected. I was prepared for negative feelings toward my toddler’s nursing when my baby was born but it didn’t happen. The three of us had a wonderful nursing relationship. Then when my son was about a year old and my daughter was three my feelings changed. Nursing my daughter became an awful experience. She still had a strong need to nurse and I just couldn’t take it. I felt uncomfortable, anxious, and angry when she was at the breast. My emotions and reactions were primal and very strong. —Elisa, New York

The precise nature of the agitation varies widely from woman to woman. Some mothers describe a grating feeling.

It’s almost impossible to describe the feeling; it’s kind of like if you could take the sound of nails on a chalkboard and turn it into a physical sensation. Sometimes the sensation made me feel like screaming at the top of my lungs while running around and around in a really tight circle. —Lisa, California

For some, it’s more creepy crawly.

The best I can do is to say it felt like bugs were crawling all over my body, and I couldn’t brush them off. It started out difficult and annoying, and soon became intolerable. People used to ask me, "Does it hurt?" And I’d think, "I wish!" Pain, I could deal with. This was so beyond pain. It was just icky. Really icky.—Barbara, Minnesota

Sometimes it is like having your mind turn on you—and the nursling.

I felt an overpowering urge to stop nursing, immediately. It was a visceral, gut reaction like an itch, making me tense, anxious, cranky, and agitated. It was so confusing because I wasn’t in pain, and I was committed to nursing my son as long as he needed to nurse. The feeling only came when Jake was nursing, and quickly passed when he was finished.—Sarah, Texas

The severity of the reaction varies from mild ("Why don’t I enjoy nursing my older child anymore?") to extreme ("Aagh! Get this child off me!"). Some call it a nursing aversion. Sometimes mothers don’t become aware of the agitation until after the breast pain abates and the desire to break away lingers.

Breastfeeding agitation may stem from our mammalian roots. Maternal aggression is not uncommon in the animal world at weaning time, and it is possible that pregnancy makes our bodies think it is time to wean.

I felt like my old childhood dog who weaned her puppies by just getting up and walking off every time they tried to nurse. The feelings I had during pregnant nursing could only be described as "primal"—it was so instinctive to recoil from nursing that I really almost couldn’t help myself. I had a strong urge to pick her up and throw her off of me and run away from her. I was in no way prepared for it and I felt like the worst mother on the planet. Since my experience, I’ve done an informal survey of all my co-Leaders and other LLL moms around who nursed while pregnant and a majority of the ones I’ve talked to also experienced powerful negative emotions when nursing while pregnant—Kelly, Georgia

Mothers’ stories make it clear that agitation is not a reflection of the mother’s relationship with the child or even her true feelings about breastfeeding! This may be an instance where one’s body wisdom and personal awareness are very useful. Would alternative ways of cuddling with her child be helpful for a mother’s relationship with her child? Is the mother run down? Suggest that she try eating better, getting more rest, and having some alone time. Remind her to do what she can to pamper herself—it can’t hurt! One mother found that even a short break from nursing made a difference.

I found that getting up and walking around for a few seconds helped in getting rid of the wriggles and reacquiring a sense of peace.—Helene, Ontario, Canada

You’ll find more practical ideas for working with breastfeeding agitation in LLLI’s new book, ADVENTURES IN TANDEM NURSING, by Hilary Flower.

Hilary Flower tandem nursed for 18 months. She lives in Florida with her partner, Ben, daughter, Nora Jade (5), and son, Miles (2). ADVENTURES IN TANDEM NURSING is her first book.

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