Understanding Nursing Aversion And How You Can Overcome It

Breastfeeding parent nurses their infant

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You might have imagined that breastfeeding your baby would be a wonderful bonding experience for you both. Your midwife or doula might have even told you that your baby latching on would trigger a rush of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone that–as well playing a key part in labor, breastfeeding, and parent-child bonding–helps reduce stress levels while nursing.

But for some, feeding your baby can make you feel angry or agitated—or even make your skin crawl. This is called Breastfeeding or Nursing Aversion and Agitation (sometimes referred to as BAA or NA), a condition that triggers negative emotions in the nursing parent for the duration of the feed.

What Is Nursing Aversion?

Nursing Aversion is a physiological response in the lactating parent to the sensation or experience of nursing their baby. It may result in feelings of anxiety, anger, rage, a skin-crawling feeling, or a strong urge to pull the baby away from the breast, explains Anna Brauch, IBCLC, a board-certified lactation consultant and breastfeeding and chestfeeding educator from Minnesota. “It is different from feeling pain from a poorly positioned baby or from breast damage, although sometimes the two can coincide,” she says. 

It is also different from Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex (D-MER), which is a condition that describes the brief but intense negative emotions triggered by the milk ejection reflex at the point of let-down. The negative emotions of Nursing Aversion last for the duration of the feed and only abate once the nursling is no longer latched on to the breast.

How Does Nursing Aversion Feel?

Those who suffer from Nursing Aversion report feeling a range of emotions, from anger, agitation, irritation, skin-crawling sensations, and an overwhelming urge to de-latch their nursling. Some have even described their aversion as feeling like a violation. In most instances, aversion starts at the beginning of each feed or even at just the idea of nursing, says Brauch. 

And while the experience can vary in onset, severity, and duration, the description of it remains very similar around the world, says Zainab Yate, a UK-based breastfeeding educator, campaigner, and researcher. Yate has been a leading resource in the research behind nursing aversion, conducting the first study of its kind into the condition, as well as penning a book on the subject: “When Breastfeeding Sucks.”

“Parents have described it as anything from a ‘creepy crawly’ feeling or mild anxiety to a sudden burst of intense rage,” says Brauch.

What Causes Nursing Aversion?

Few studies have been conducted in relation to Nursing Aversion and, as such, we are still scratching the surface on what we know about it. However, there is some indication that parents who are breastfeeding while pregnant or are tandem feeding are perhaps more prone to suffering from Nursing Aversion. Additionally, it appears to be less common for parents to experience aversion while nursing younger children.

Yate has also explored the link between certain nutritional deficiencies and Nursing Aversion, specifically Vitamin B12 and magnesium. There is also a suggestion of a link between current or prior trauma in the lactating parent’s life and Nursing Aversion. However, both theories need further research before we can draw any concrete conclusions. 

How Parents Can Cope With Nursing Aversion

The coping mechanisms associated with Nursing Aversion have been gathered from peer-to-peer support groups and are not backed by clinical trials. However, sufferers have reported that taking magnesium and vitamin B12 supplements have helped to alleviate symptoms, while dehydration, lack of sleep, and stress can make their aversion worse.

“A combination of improved diet, sleep, and stress management with talk therapy or peer support and good family support may do wonders to help a nursing parent continue through aversion,” says Brauch. She also recommends nursing with a nipple shield. It creates a thin barrier between the parent's skin and the child's mouth, which may help reduce the negative sensations associated with nursing.

Exploring Other Feeding Options

Anecdotal evidence shows that weaning earlier than intended in order to overcome aversion isn’t always a desirable option. For these parents, continuing to nurse their baby while experiencing aversion should be an exercise in self-care and managing boundaries. “Setting limits on the duration and frequency of nursing sessions to a level that is sustainable for the parent is appropriate and may greatly help if the child is over the age of one and taking many solid foods to round out their diet in addition to breastfeeding,” says Brauch. 

In younger children, you may decide to explore the option of supplementing breastfeeds with pumped milk, donor milk, or infant formula. However, this is something you should raise with your lactation consultant or pediatrician first.

If the aversion becomes too severe to sustain a healthy breastfeeding relationship, some people may choose to adjust their breastfeeding goals and wean earlier than they had planned. This is a personal decision that should be treated with compassion. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of your baby's life followed by continued breastfeeding along with complementary food for one year of life or longer.

“In this case, it is important to focus on success rather than failure,” urges Brauch. Remember that fed is best, so work to maintain your mental health during this period. This will help you maintain a healthy bond with your baby, and can help to mitigate the psychological effects of weaning for both you and your child. "And, make a plan for transitioning [your] child to other nutrition sources appropriate for their age," Brauch recommends.

Where To Find Support

As with anything, you can find multiple sources of support online. In fact, Yate has curated a free structured support course, as well as a very welcoming and active peer-to-peer support group on Facebook called “Aversion sucks.” 

 Further advice and support can be offered from a healthcare professional, a breastfeeding counselor, lactation consultant, or pediatrician. “Good support can make a huge difference in helping a parent meet their feeding goals or redefine success for themselves,” says Brauch. 

A Word From Verywell

Guilt, shame and sadness are all emotions associated with Nursing Aversion. However, it is important to acknowledge that Nursing Aversion is a psychological reflex that occurs in some lactating parents and not others—it is not the result of anything you have done wrong and it does not make you a bad parent. 

As with any complications that arise in breastfeeding, the recommended first step in overcoming the issue is to talk about what you are experiencing. Nursing Aversion can feel isolating and the strength of your emotions can be scary; that isn’t something that you should have to go through alone. 

Seek out support from others and, if you feel it is appropriate for you and your family, give yourself permission to explore your feeding options under the guidance of a lactation consultant or pediatrician.

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8 Sources
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