How I Managed My Breastfeeding Guilt

Tired mother nursing a newborn baby.

Getty Images / Halfpoint Images

I sat motionless, cradling my newborn, scanning the walls of the hospital room in a sleep-deprived daze. It was one day postpartum and the fourth time I had asked the nurse to call the lactation consultant. When she arrived, she gave me a warm, yet slightly concerned smile, asking what it was she could help me with.

"I just—I don't know what I am doing," I said. She instructed me, yet again, how to get my daughter to latch properly, and commented that I was "doing great." Was I, though? Aside from giving birth, the only thing I felt I had accomplished by that point was successfully making it from the bed to the bathroom on my own.

For me, the desire to breastfeed was unlike any other. For nine months, I had a vision of what it would be like, and the second they placed my first daughter on my chest, everything changed. Her little mouth opened and closed, searching for the sustenance only I could provide, and I had no clue how to do it. I wanted it to be special, not stressful. I wanted it to be bonding, not a burden.

The physical pain I felt manifested as emotional turmoil, creating a tug of war between my sanity and my desire to be a 'good' mom.

Yet there I was, in tears, wondering how I was going to keep it up for the six months I had mentally committed myself to. It hurt—so bad. I constantly feared my daughter was not getting enough milk. The only thing magical about it was the excruciating pain that seemed to appear out of thin air, even when I was not nursing.

The first couple of weeks did not just cause physical discomfort. Constant anxiety pushed my mental health to the brink of deterioration, and my days were consumed by cursing at a breast pump and tearful calls to the lactation consultant. There was one feeling, though, that seemed to weigh more heavily than any other—guilt. The physical pain I felt manifested as emotional turmoil, creating a tug of war between my sanity and my desire to be a "good" mom. I wanted to give my daughter what she needed, and I did. But at what cost?

I felt guilty about my frustration when she cried for milk at 2 a.m. I felt guilty for wishing I could just give her a bottle instead. (Which, I could have.) I felt guilty for crying, for wanting to quit. Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months, and through the guilt, I pushed myself to stick with it. I flinched, gritted my teeth, and held my breath during every painful session. My husband looked on, concerned and almost terrified, asking me why I would not stop. "I have to do this," I would tell him.

The thing was, I did not have to. And that is what so many mothers struggle with during the months following delivery. You are consumed by the desire to prove yourself as a "good" mother, to do what society deems as the "right" way to feed your child. (Which weighs like an elephant on your self-confidence.)

According to the CDC, 60% of mothers do not breastfeed for as long as they intend to.

While I did breastfeed both of my daughters for longer than expected (which ended up a very positive experience), the journey to that point was a grueling one. If there is one thing I have learned, it is to listen to your body and mind, rather than force them to comply.

I ended up throwing my guilt to the side and started combining nursing with supplementing. If I did not feel like pumping, I did not. If I was too tired to nurse, I did not. Using formula when I needed it helped restore the sanity I had lost while—most importantly— keeping my children happy, healthy, and fed.

Your choice between breast or bottle is not what establishes your worth as a mother—it is your determination to feed your baby no matter what. Why put ourselves through hell when there is a healthy, equally valuable alternative? Why try to power through when all your baby cares about is a full tummy, regardless of whether it is from a real or artificial nipple?

"There is no correlation between the value of a mother and if she did or did not breastfeed. None," explains reproductive and perinatal psychiatrist Carly Snyder, MD. "[Your] baby needs a healthy mom more than anything."

Here, along with research and the expert advice of Dr. Snyder, we break down the causes of breastfeeding guilt and how you can manage to move past it.

Causes of Breastfeeding Guilt 

Every woman is different, but the overall cause of breastfeeding guilt typically stems from societal pressure. "Our society pushes breast is best, and this weighs on women during pregnancy," explains Dr. Snyder. "They wonder if they will be able to effectively breastfeed and too often link their value as a mother to whether or not breastfeeding works."

While many try to plan out how they will approach breastfeeding, life tends to have a mind of its own. When plans fall through after delivery, it can be devastating to a parent's confidence and mental state. "Many hospitals now also strive to be a ‘baby-friendly’ institution, meaning they push breastfeeding and only offer formula if mom explicitly asks for it," says Dr. Snyder. "Moms too often feel shamed for this request, and women leave the hospital already feeling like they are failing."

On the other hand, plenty of parents head home from the hospital with a breastfed baby, but run into unexpected obstacles that can cause mixed emotions about continuing. Some of these circumstances include:

Problems With Milk Supply

There are so many different factors that contribute to milk supply (or lack thereof). In the beginning, especially if it is your first time, it can be tough to determine whether your baby is getting enough milk.

According to Dr. Snyder, there is an unfortunate cycle that occurs if a parent is feeling anxious, guilty, or depressed about breastfeeding. "[If] mom feels increasingly anxious and sad, her milk supply is reduced, [and] baby senses mom's tension," she says. "[This means] baby does not relax well and thus does not eat as well, and this causes further anxiety and sadness for mom."

Causes of Low Milk Supply

  • Supplementing with formula
  • Poor latching
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Going extended periods without nursing
  • Only offering one breast during feedings
  • Nipple confusion from bottles or pacifiers
  • Tongue or lip tie in baby
  • Thyroid issues in the parent

This is why it is important to determine whether you actually have a low milk supply, or if it is something else. It is best to talk to your healthcare provider or a certified lactation consultant if you are concerned about the amount of milk you are producing. They can help you get to the root of the issue and determine if low supply is actually to blame.

If you and your medical team have determined low milk supply is the case, it can certainly have a negative impact on a parent's emotional and physical well-being. As difficult as it might be, it is imperative to prioritize the baby's health, especially right after birth. "A baby needs adequate fluid (in the form of breast milk or formula) in the days following birth," says Dr. Syder. "It can be very dangerous if they become dehydrated."

A General Dislike of Nursing

If you simply do not like breastfeeding, that is fine. A number of women give up breastfeeding for a multitude of reasons.

In fact, the latest CDC data shows that close to 85% of women start breastfeeding after delivery, but only around 58% are still nursing at 6 months. While the percentage of women who quit breastfeeding due to a general dislike or because of guilt is unclear, one thing is for certain—nursing is hard, and it is only natural to consider stopping at some point.

Weaning 

Maybe you absolutely love nursing. The experience has been successful and rewarding, but now you have decided it is time to start weaning—and a whole new form of guilt emerges. (What if we lose our bond? What if I am stopping too soon?)

"In terms of anxiety and guilt over weaning, the timing has to be a personal decision, and sometimes it is made by the baby and sometimes by [the] mom," explains Dr. Snyder. No matter how the decision is made, it should be applauded, not doubted. "However long one is able to breastfeed, be it exclusively or with supplemental formula, is great," she adds.

Ways To Manage Breastfeeding Guilt

As any parent can attest to, guilt is present in nearly every aspect of raising little ones. Luckily, there are ways to help manage that guilt when it comes to breastfeeding. It may not happen overnight, but to help move past it, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Take Your Time in the Beginning  

Think about it: You have just given birth to a tiny human, and now you are trying to teach that tiny human to drink milk from your body. It is going to take some work! If you struggle in the days and weeks following delivery, remember that every baby is different, and some take longer than others to adjust to nursing.

"It may take time for you and your baby to get the hang of breastfeeding for any number of reasons, and while it is important to try to figure out any remedies, it is also important to give yourself the grace to provide formula," adds Dr. Snyder.

Carly Snyder, MD

Moms and babies bond beautifully whether or not [the] baby is being breastfed.

— Carly Snyder, MD

Remember What Matters Most

At the end of the day, what matters most is that your baby is fed, happy, and loved. Nursing is not the only way to strengthen the bond with your child, regardless of what your guilty conscience might tell you.

"Moms and babies bond beautifully whether or not [the] baby is being breastfed," says Dr. Snyder. "You can stare into your baby’s eyes and connect over a bottle just as well as over a breast. Cuddle time and snuggling matter more than the mode of delivery and type of nourishment provided."

Reach Out for Support

Whether it is your partner, family, friends, a support group, or a lactation consultant, there are so many options to help you through your breastfeeding journey. Having your partner step in for late-night bottle feedings is a great way to get yourself some rest while allowing them to bond with your little one.

Dr. Snyder stresses that professionals are always ready and willing to offer support. "Perinatal psychiatrists and therapists and other mental healthcare workers trained in working with new moms are there to help," she says. "[You can] also reach out for support amongst friends and relatives who you know to be understanding and non-judgemental. Many people struggle with breastfeeding, and it can be helpful to share your journeys together and lift one another up."

A Word From Verywell

You've heard it before, but we will say it again: Fed is best. Whether you choose the bottle or the breast is your decision. Feeding your baby does not have to be complicated, stressful, or controlled by guilt. The unconditional love you receive from your child is unwavering, and the way you keep them fed will never change that. Remember that bringing a new life into the world takes incredible strength, commitment, and love—and that is what makes you an amazing parent.

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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breastfeeding Facts. Updated September 28 2020.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breastfeeding Report Card. Updated 2020.