The Bonding Relationship of Breastfeeding
If someone were to ask me what my most significantly emotional bonding experience has been in my life I would have to honestly answer them that it was the breastfeeding experience.
I was only 17 years old when I became a mother for the first time. I was bound and determined to be a good mother, in spite of my age. During my pregnancy, I started reading books from the library on how to do this the right way. I read Dr. Spock. I read every book I could find.
One of the first things that I saw in many of these books was the scientific proof that breastfeeding was best for babies. I decided that I would breast-feed my baby.
My mother and her mother did not breastfeed and I didn’t know anyone personally who had breast fed except for an aunt who lived fairly far away for me. So it’s pretty safe to say that my inner circle was not a place that I could very easily discuss my experiences.
I was ill prepared, despite the many parenting books I was reading, for the emotional roller coaster that I went on as a new breastfeeding mother.
Breastfeeding is one of the most unique and valuable relationships between humans. This article will cover some of the emotional experiences of breastfeeding, and how breastfeeding affects the bonding relationship between mother and baby.
It will also cover some important aspects to developing community to help support you in this new, challenging, and overwhelmingly rewarding relationship.
Building a support system
Once you have made the decision to breastfeed your baby, you will want to get a support system in place so that when you are developing the breastfeeding bond with your baby, you will have people that you can go to for questions and support.
When I was a new breastfeeding mother, the internet was not available to me. In that day you had to find groups of people or programs in your area to get the support that you needed. One of the first things that I did was find a breastfeeding support group called La Leche League.
I was very fortunate that there was a support group that was active in my area. (YOu can check online or in the local newspaper for groups in your area.) I began attending the meetings with a small group of other breastfeeding mothers. I have to say that this was my first experience with other mothers in a community setting that allowed me to share the emotional aspect of what I was going through. Doctors and nurses were available for me to call, of course, but there is so much more to breastfeeding than simply understanding how to do it or how to solve issues that arise.
Today, there are many online resources, including the Babienet community:
Here at the Babienet Parenting Community we understand the value of community. We provide a safe space for you to interact with other parents, as well as a wealth of information to help you to be the best parent you can be. Come and join us! You can also join us on Facebook or follow our Blog. It is so important as a new parent to have a sense of community and to feel like you are not alone in this sometimes overwhelming experience.
No one told me how emotional breastfeeding would be
For the first three days of my son’s life, we took turns crying and sometimes we cried together. My son could not figure out how to latch on which led to screaming fits and frustration for him and disappointment, frustration, and a sense of failure on my part. I didn’t have an understanding of what to do to make things better. This was before I joined the La Leche league support group and one of the main reasons that I sought out the outside support.
But I was determined to make it work. I fought through the tears and the worry and just kept trying. I think it was probably the biggest lesson on patience that I’ve ever had in my life. Three days later, two sore nipples, and many tears later, my son learned to effectively latch on and eat without frustration. Sometimes in the first few minutes of a feeding he would become aggravated and cry but eventually he learned how to make it work. I was so grateful that I had not given up during this extremely difficult time.
The first successful feeding took place a few days after we arrived at home. I was alone. I cried and celebrated this moment and felt, for the first time as a new mother, that “I’ve got this. I can do this!”
In many cases when a woman is having difficulty breastfeeding the doctors would have said something about the “milk not coming in” or that the woman wasn’t “able” to breastfeed, but I think that advice is sometimes ill-given and premature. It simply takes time to develop and learn how to breastfeed, both for the mother and the baby.
The emotional roller-coaster of those first few days was only the beginning, albeit a rocky one, to a wonderfully fulfilling breastfeeding relationship between me and my baby. It was the beginning of bonding with my son in a way that was very special to us both.
Bonding begins early with skin to skin contact
There’s strong science behind the importance of early skin to skin contact between mother and baby. Most birthing centers and home delivery nurses now incorporate this into the birthing experience. Part of the reason I had such difficulty starting to breastfeed is due to the separation of me and my baby at the hospital, which has improved now in the medical community with mothers and babies being kept together as much as possible.
I had a particularly difficult natural birth with a fourth degree perineal tear. I received over 80 stitches and a lot of follow-up medication for pain. I didn’t see my baby until nearly 24 hours after I delivered. By this time, the nurses had introduced both a bottle of water and a pacifier.
Then I tried to breastfeed. There were no lactation consultants. In fact, the nurses, when I told them I was going to breastfeed actually asked me “are you sure?” Then they gave me samples of formula to take home with me “just in case.”
Let your nurses know that you plan to breastfeed and insist on trying to feed your baby as soon after delivery as possible, and certainly before the introduction of other things like bottles or pacifiers. (Lactation support has come a long way to support nursing mothers, but expressing your wishes firmly is a good idea.)
The after-delivery moments are overwhelmingly emotional, but made even more special if you take that time to breastfeed your baby. It really is your first real-life activity together with your newborn.
Skin to Skin Contact
Mother-infant separation post birth is common in Western culture. Early skin-to-skin contact (SSC) begins ideally at birth and involves placing the naked baby, head covered with a dry cap and a warm blanket across the back, prone on the mother’s bare chest. This time may represent a psychophysiologically ‘sensitive period’ for programming future physiology and behavior.–NCBI
The Golden Hour
The first hour after birth (also called the “golden hour”) is a critical time to maximize the bonding experience between you and your and baby. There is a surging oxytocin release after birth that causes your senses to be intensified, allowing you to connect with the smell and feel of your baby. Likewise, your baby becomes attracted to your scent.–Medela
The “Let-Down” process
One of the most misunderstood aspects of breast-feeding is about the let-down process. I’ll admit that when I first experienced it, I wasn’t aware of what exactly was happening with my body.
The let-down refers to a reflex that occurs about two minutes after your baby has been suckling. It triggers a response that allows the milk to begin to flow freely. For the first two or three days when you have colostrum and before your milk has fully come in, you may not experience this at all. Once your milk comes in and your baby begins to nurse you will have a tingling sensation, sometimes a warm feeling or an emotional response as the milk “releases” and begins to flow.
All mothers are different in how this process “feels” to them.
Some women do not experience any kind of feeling when this happens nor can they feel physically that is occurring, but you should be able to tell by the more noticeable drinking sounds that your baby is making.
I experienced the let-down reflex in a very positive way, as do many mothers. I was very grateful once I joined the La Leche league group, that I was able to discuss some of these feelings with other women who could empathize and understand what I was going through.
The letdown process generated in me such an overwhelming feeling of nurturing and love for my baby that at times I simply had to cry. It was a happy cry. Those tears were the physical manifestation of a love so overwhelming I just simply could not contain it. I felt physically connected to my child in such a way that it felt that bond could never be broken. This bonding feeling began very early and I am grateful that breast-feeding helped to teach me as such a young mother that I could provide for my child, love and nurture my child, and that our relationship could be such a strong union.
Some women have actually gotten into trouble by the way that they describe the let-down process. Although it is a wave of emotion and physical sensation that passes through your body, it should not be described in sexual terms (such as the word orgasm). Not only are the two not connected but it gives the wrong impression to other people about how you feel about your baby. Yes, it is a wave of sensation but it is very different than the kind that you receive in a sexual manner.
I think that some women just have a difficult time explaining how this sensation makes them feel and use the closest thing that they can relate it to. The bottom line is that the breast-feeding experience is absolutely not connected to sexual stimulation. These feelings can be very complicated and confusing for new mothers and having a good support community can help new mothers to understand and unpack these unfamiliar new feelings that they are having. Yes, the let-down reflex gives a pleasurable sensation, but it is pleasurable in a nurturing, caring, motherly way.
What you may experience during let-down
- pins and needles
- mild pain
- emotional response
- Contraction in your uterus (This part was actually very painful for me in the first few weeks.)
- Relief (physical and emotional)
- A feeling of sudden thirst
- A release of tears or a sudden relaxed, sleepy feeling
The science of breastfeeding and emotions
Oxytocin and breastfeeding
It turns out, there’s a lot of science behind what I was experiencing as a new mother. All of the surges of emotions that I felt when breast-feeding my baby can easily be explained by the release of oxytocin in the body.
Oxytocin is called the “love hormone” and is released in both the mother’s body and the baby’s during the breast-feeding process. While your baby is getting to know your scent and how your skin feels, that safe feeling they have when they are in your arms, and all of the beautiful expressions that your face makes, they are experiencing a surge in their body of the love hormone which makes them just feel wonderful. This explains to me why a baby often wants to nurse when they are upset or when they don’t feel well. But that same hormone is released for mother as well, reciprocating the love and affection to baby.
What exactly does oxytocin do when you’re breastfeeding?
- Increases relaxation
- Lowers stress and anxiety
- Lowers blood pressure
- Causes muscle contractions in the uterus to help your body return to “normal” after pregnancy
- Oxytocin is helpful in developing bonding, trust, and love
- Helps signal the let-down reflex
- Generates feelings of mothering and nurturing
The relationship between breastfeeding and postpartum depression (PPD)
Studies show a link between breastfeeding and PPD, an inverse (reciprocal) one, meaning as one is more present, the other is less present.
One such study conducted in 2012 found significant decreases in PPD amongst women who were breastfeeding through the first four months. Here’s an excerpt of that study’s findings:
Women who were breastfeeding at 2 and 4 months had lower scores on EPDS (p < 0.0037 andp < 0.0001, respectively) and were less likely to be diagnosed with PPD at 4 months (p < 0.0025). Higher scores on EPDS and diagnosis of PPD at 2 months were predictive of lower rates of breastfeeding at 4 months (p < 0.0001 and p < 0.005, respectively). Women who were employed and using formula at 2 months were less likely to breastfeed at 4 months (p < 0.0001). Breastfeeding women at 2 months had lower scores on EPDS (p < 0.003) and were less likely to be diagnosed with PPD (p <0.05) at 4 months.
The results indicate that women who breastfeed their infants reduced their risk of developing PPD, with effects being maintained over the first 4 months postpartum. PPD may also decrease the rate of breastfeeding, suggesting a reciprocal relationship between these variables.
The MGH Center for Women’s Mental Health has a great article discussing some of the conflicting medical studies that have been done on this issue and points out that some of the studies have not offered a control or have included the possibility that some of the women in the study may have pre-existing mental health conditions. Though studies have been wide and variable, the medical community tends to support the connection between breast-feeding and PPD. Most studies show that the presence of breast-feeding does have some effect on lessening a mother’s inclination to develop PPD symptoms.
What if your experience with breastfeeding doesn’t feel positive?
As I said before, all mothers experience breast-feeding differently. The bonding between mother and baby is a common thread but the emotional reaction to breast-feeding can often be variable as well.
Some mothers experience negative emotions when they are breast-feeding. This can be intensely confusing if you go into it with the expectation of feeling cuddly, happy, relaxed, and generally positive.
What if this is not your experience? Does this mean that you are a terrible mother or that maybe you’re not cut out for this? Of course not, although having those confused feelings would be an understandable reaction.
What is D-MER?
Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex or D-MER is a physiological response to the let-down reflex that can cause a wash of negative emotions and sensations. Although the condition is rare, it does exist and for those mothers going through this, it is wonderful to know that other women have experienced it.
D-MER does not mean that there is anything wrong with your ability to love or parent your child. Some studies show that there may be a connection to lower levels of the hormone dopamine. So, the feelings you are having are a physical response and you can rest assured, it is not your fault.
Having a name for what you are experiencing can empower you to find answers, to find others who are experiencing this, and to reach out to your community for support.
Consider this mother’s description of her experience with D-MER:
It’s a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach. There is a strong aversion to food. I don’t feel sad, but I feel ‘icky and yucky.’
Here are some of the things that you may be experiencing if you are having a D-MER reaction:
- Hollow feelings in the stomach
- Emotional upset
If you are experiencing D-MER and find it particularly concerning you can call your doctor or lactation consultant. An experienced lactation consultant can help you to manage these emotions. Find an online forum to help you discuss your experiences with others who can understand.
But most of all, give yourself a break. Motherhood comes with a whirlwind of emotions and experiences and it is different for everyone. Your experience, regardless of what that is, will be unique to you. Your story and your experience have value.
For most, breastfeeding helps to nurture the mother-baby bonding relationship.
Ultimately, breast-feeding is about a natural way to feed your child. But there are so many more aspects to breast-feeding that I didn’t know anything about when I started my breast-feeding relationship with my infant. What went on to be a year-long bonding experience for us, started out with the decision to breast-feed over bottle feeding.
But, there’s something uniquely special about the breast-feeding process that supports bonding with your infant and can generate a more satisfying and rewarding experience.
Even if you only have a few weeks out of work and choose to breast-feed during that time, it can be a very special time for you to develop that close relationship with your newborn that you have always dreamed about. Breast-feeding is simply one more option available to you to nurture your bonding experience with your baby. One that brought great joy into my life–a joy I didn’t see coming!
For further reading:
Christina M. Ward,
Babienet blog contributor
Proud mother of 3 and grandmother of 2
The Bonding Relationship of Breastfeeding is a discussion of the bonding between mother and baby, the hormonal adjustments and emotional experience that new mothers can go through when breastfeeding.