One in seven women say the issue of how they fed their baby had a negative impact on their mental health, according to a BBC survey.
Many who struggled with breastfeeding mentioned feeling like a failure as a result.
The poll carried out by BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour and BBC Radio Sheffield found that half of mothers, aged between 18 and 40, said they felt like they let their baby down when they struggled to breastfeed.
While two thirds of women who breastfed their baby say it was one of the best parts of being a mum, nearly half said it was one of the most difficult parts.
BACP psychotherapist Sarah Wheatley, runs Birth and Beyond which offers counselling to new mums and families, in Edinburgh.
She agreed that there was often a sense of guilt among the mums she helped who had been unable to breastfeed.
But she said: “It often feels like there’s a right way of doing things – instead we should think of being a mother as a ‘way of being’. We need to think of the bigger picture, our whole family life and not just let this one aspect of how we feed our baby define us as mothers.
Everyone is different
“Breast-feeding is a learnt skill rather than an innate one. It’s not something women pick up naturally, and the baby does not know naturally how to do it either. Every mum is different, every baby is different, and it doesn’t always happen.”
Sarah said that women are often inundated with messages regarding the benefits of breastfeeding, yet the support if they are struggling can vary greatly.
“It can be psychologically devastating to women if they are unable to breastfeed; a really difficult start to their journey of being a mother. Some women can see it as their fault. They feel they are flawed as a person, that it reflects their ability as person. That is when it can be damaging.”
She described women who have expressed milk for four hours a day for more than six months to ensure their baby was having breastmilk rather than formula, and the impact that can have on their mental health too.
“Sometimes women just lose themselves in this idea that they have to breastfeed their baby. It becomes a bit of an obsession. It can be really helpful if a partner will just step in and say something. Everyone needs to look at the whole family’s needs at that moment,” she said.
Look after yourself
“There is something about recognising that you don’t have to put yourself through all that, you are still a good enough mother. You do need to look after yourself.”
Other findings in the survey included that three in ten women who formula-fed their baby say they would have liked to have breastfed but felt embarrassed to do so in public.
Some three quarters of women who formula-fed their baby (either exclusively or in addition to breastfeeding) said they enjoyed involving their partner or others in feeding their baby. Three quarters of these women said that they agreed that using formula allowed them greater freedom in feeding their baby.
If you want to seek advice or help about perinatal mental health issues you can find a BACP counsellor or psychotherapist via the BACP’s Therapist Directory.