Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Hilary Jacobson CCHt, Switzerland
Recently, I read in a book about natural childbirth that mothers should prepare mentally ahead of time just in case a Cesarean birth is needed. The authors point out that when we accept that life is not predictable and are mentally prepared for any eventuality, a mother can maintain a positive sense of connection to her baby even without her ideal birth.
When it comes to breastfeeding, we do not advise mothers about what to do in case breastfeeding does not work out. We know that with correct information, guidance, and support, mothers usually succeed and we do not want to discourage mothers by suggesting difficulties that will most likely never arise.
Yet, where does this leave those mothers who, for whatever reason, are not able to have their hoped-for relationship?
A 2014 study from Cambridge, looking at 14,000 mothers, revealed that mothers who do not reach their breastfeeding goals are at twice the risk of postpartum depression. The head author of that study, Marie Iacovou, says, “There is currently hardly any skilled specialist help for these mothers, and this is something … that health providers should be thinking about.”
Helping mothers truly heal their emotional wounds is something I have been thinking about for a long time. As the moderator of an online group for mothers with chronic low milk supply, I have heard hundreds if not thousands of heartbreaking stories. More personally, I went through breastfeeding grief after the birth of my first child, and it was the healing of that wound that motivated my research and outreach in subsequent decades.
What I learned is that mothers need what I call a “pivotal moment” in which they feel supported with compassion and understanding, and can be directed to focus on their capacity to love their baby, regardless how they feed. If mothers do not receive a pivotal moment of compassion, but instead sense that their feelings or problems are judged, or trivialized, their grief can deepen and become entrenched.
The good news is that even if the grief/trauma has become entrenched, it can still resolve and mothers can heal. Today, scientists are discovering the remarkable benefits of mindfulness meditation for posttraumatic stress, and also the benefits of stress relief through relaxation and visualization. Scientists are recognizing, too, that the brain and the emotions are much more malleable than previously suspected. Our thoughts and feelings can be permanently redirected in positive ways, and relatively quickly, too. All of this explains why techniques used in hypnotherapy, somatic therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and coaching are frequently so effective—and they are effective for mothers, too.
Recently, I worked with a mother who had been suffering for three years. She had been to see several professionals—psychologists, a somatic therapist, even a shamanistic healer—but none had been able to help her. After her first hypnotherapy session she said, “This is exactly what I have been looking for all this time.” She went on, “The other therapists were helpful, but they could not understand that I am experiencing breastfeeding grief—not guilt, not anger, not failure, not my own childhood trauma, but grief over the loss of breastfeeding.”
I find it interesting that, even with my personal and professional experience, it took me a while to develop a hypnotherapy approach that consistently brings relief to mothers. Unconsciously, I shared society’s mental block toward comprehending the essence of this suffering, which has everything to do with society’s problems with intimacy.
It turns out that on a core level, grieving mothers are most concerned about their bond with their baby. Mothers who plan to breastfeed often internalize that this bond is achievable only through breastfeeding, so that when this relationship is challenged, we might feel as though we have failed our child and lost our one-and-only chance for that deep connection.
Below is a quotation from Arielle Lindner, a mother who worked through her breastfeeding grief using the kinds of processes and visualizations that are the centerpiece of my book. Her process was initiated through a pivotal moment of compassion and a “reframe” that was offered to her by her IBCLC.
“When my IBCLC/pediatrician saw how upset I was with low supply, she offered me this reframe as she said very compassionately: ‘Your baby will get all the benefits and immunity of your milk from you, and he will get all the calories he needs from formula.’ That began my gratitude toward formula and having a healthy, hungry baby. I seriously love that woman. She was a godsend to me and taught me how to persevere happily.
“At three months I stopped pumping and started meditating as I nursed. I would visualize that soft rosy pink color of love emanating from my heart and wrapping around my son. The fact that I supplemented with a bottle of formula stopped bothering me because I just knew that our connection was stronger than what filled his belly. I actually started to enjoy bottle feeding and felt grateful that I could fill his food need and watch him sleep peacefully on a full belly. I learned a lot in the first three months, but I learned a lot more once I became fully present. I could easily tend to his needs, read his body language and cues because I was at peace.”
Through my book Healing Breastfeeding Grief, it is my intention to help mothers heal their emotional wounds and reconnect with the love that is always flowing between a mother and her baby—if we just turn our focus toward it, become fully present, and allow ourselves to perceive, believe and experience it.
An excerpt from Healing Breastfeeding Grief:
“REFRAME YOUR STORY
Reframing is an effective and straightforward process that is often used in therapy. You can do it on your own, too.
To reframe means to re-tell an old story with a new and positive meaning, interpretation, or outcome. The key to a good reframe is that the new story should feel right; it should ring true to you.
You should be able to believe your reframe.
Guiding your brain to discover a new and positive interpretation is a good first step toward feeling better. When we sincerely look for a positive meaning to life’s events, our brain and body respond with positive ideas and feelings.
You may have heard about gratitude journaling, which is a kind of reframing. By recording something we are grateful for every day, our mind becomes sensitized toward that which we value in life, toward that which brings us happiness.
It doesn’t matter at all whether the thing we are grateful for is large or small, or if it is material, emotional, or spiritual. Simply viewing our life with gratitude moves us into a positive state of mind. It makes us receptive to positive changes, and we discover that we have more to be grateful for.
When you reframe your breastfeeding story, you will want to think about your reframe-story many times a day. Try writing your reframe-story on a card and placing it where you nurse. Read your new story frequently; take pleasure in it; let it run through your mind and evoke pleasant images.
- Being sad makes me feel honest deep down inside myself. It may sound strange, but I actually see more clearly how much I care about my baby through how sad I’ve been. I want to use every moment to be a loving mother to my baby. I love my baby so much.
- I am learning visualizations for heart-to-heart-connection, and I notice how this is helping me be more connected with my baby, and also with other family members. It is good to see something positive come of this.
- While I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, you really can go through breastfeeding grief and come out on the other side as a more mature and understanding person, more sympathetic toward the suffering of other people. I used to be much more judgmental, and now I just want to understand and be kind.
- All my life, I’ve been guilting myself, asking, Why me? and coming up with lots of self-blaming explanations. I guilted myself for this, too, but then I realized that my baby needs me to be positive. I’ve been practicing self-forgiveness and feel much better about myself.
- I have been suffering with D-MER, and learning breathing techniques has helped me deal with the difficult physical and emotional feelings. While I wouldn’t want anyone to go through this, I was able to take some important lessons from it. I’m seeing how being in the moment and focusing on my breath allows me to be less affected by passing feelings.Remember: The new, positive meaning must ring true to you. By telling and retelling your new stories, you generate the positive feelings they evoke. After some time, you might share your new, positive story with friends and family, and with a trusted community of mothers.
This is your healing story.”
Hilary Jacobson was born in Southern California and moved to Europe as a young adult. A 30-year resident of Switzerland, she is a certified Swiss holistic lactation consultant (CH.HU.SI.) and ACHE certified clinical hypnotherapist. Hilary is the author of Mother Food: A Breastfeeding Diet Guide with Lactogenic Foods and Herbs and Healing Breastfeeding Grief, and the co-founder of mobimotherhood.org. She can be found online at mother-food.com and HealingBreastfeedingGrief.com