Experiencing breastfeeding aversion can take parents by surprise, but it doesn’t have to be the end of your breastfeeding journey.
Trigger warning: This article contains mention of sexual assault and abuse.
Lots of things about life with a new baby can take you by surprise. How much your baby feeds. How quickly your baby grows. How adorable their tiny toes are. (We mean, really! They ARE just toes — but so flipping adorable!)
Not all surprises are good, though. Some parents — lots of parents, in fact — are surprised by the challenges of breastfeeding. We’re all about normalizing that — and helping parents find ways to have a positive breastfeeding experience.
In our blog, we’ve talked about mastitis, low supply, and other common breastfeeding challenges. But we haven’t addressed breastfeeding aversion, a less-talked-about and less-researched experience that can take parents by surprise.
What is breastfeeding aversion?
Breastfeeding aversion, simply put, is when negative emotions and feelings are triggered during a breastfeeding session. The emotions can span from irritability and frustration to rage or disgust. What’s more, parents who experience aversion report experiencing intrusive thoughts during bouts of aversion. Examples include, but aren’t limited to:
Powerful urge to stop breastfeeding
Wanting to escape or run away from breastfeeding
Thoughts of feeling “touched out”
These thoughts tend to stop when breastfeeding sessions end, although distress from experience can linger.
Aversion isn’t just emotional, though. It has a physical component, too.
Parents who experience aversion report an unpleasant skin itching or crawling sensation when their child is latched, along with an urgent need to remove their child from their breast.
Currently, there aren’t any clear clinical indicators as to who might experience aversion. It can happen to anyone.
What’s more, the severity and duration of aversion differ significantly. Some parents have milder forms of aversion that can be easily managed, while others may experience great distress in the situation.
The difference between aversion and DMER
Breastfeeding can also trigger a condition known as dysphoric milk ejection reflex or DMER. DMER is like aversion, triggering a range of negative feelings: Despair, despondency, and hopelessness are commonly reported.
As a condition, though, DMER is prompted by your milk ejection reflex — hence the name. As such, it lasts for just a few minutes, unlike aversion, which can last for entire nursing sessions. What’s more, it seems to lack the physical sensations of aversion — no itchy, crawling skin or need to unlatch your baby.
What’s more, DMER can happen ANYTIME your milk ejection reflex is activated: latching, pumping, hand expressing, even during spontaneous milk ejection.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of research on breastfeeding aversion. Zainab Yates, a London-based health researcher, has done the most comprehensive analysis. As she notes in her work, a limited number of studies and research have explored the existence of breastfeeding aversion — e.g., what it is — but there aren’t any definitive studies as to why parents experience it.
So what can we say about the causes of aversion? There are a number of reasons why parents may experience it.
Breastfeeding and reproductive hormones
Hormonal shifts are one of the most common causes of breastfeeding aversion. These shifts are usually due to either menstruation, ovulation, or pregnancy.
For some breastfeeding parents, breastfeeding aversion peaks during their menstrual cycle. It could occur during ovulation, after one’s menstrual cycle has finished, or somewhere in between. Some parents experience aversion just during their menstrual cycle, meaning that the rest of the month is free from aversion.
If you suspect this might cause your breastfeeding aversion, consider tracking your cycles to see if you can determine a pattern to your aversion.
Pregnancy is also a common culprit for aversion.
Pregnancy places a lot of stress on the body, as does breastfeeding. As a result, pregnant parents may feel exhausted and struggle with sleeping (more on sleep below!). They may experience an increase in nipple sensitivity, creating additional discomfort, stress, and even distress during nursing.
Parent-baby breastfeeding relationship and behaviors
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: breastfeeding can be beautiful, but it can also be hard.
Your breastfeeding relationship with your child can be a factor in breastfeeding aversion. However, this isn’t to say that you or your baby are doing anything to cause it. Breastfeeding is a journey, though, and what once worked well for you and your baby might not work so well now.
What does that mean?
Let’s say your baby had a great latch early on — nice and deep and really effective at transferring milk. But your baby grew into a toddler and became more active and distractible. Totally normal! But a distracted nursing toddler? Not the best at latching. What was once comfortable may now be painful and stressful.
Another breastfeeding-relationship issue that can trigger aversion is nipple twiddling or tweaking during nursing. Babies and toddlers are curious, exploratory beings. To them, your nipple is just an interesting thing to play with while they’re nursing.
But for parents, twiddling and tweaking can be stressful. On the mild end of the spectrum, it’s annoying. On the other end, it can be deeply upsetting. (This is sometimes the case for survivors of sexual assault or abuse.)
Another situation that prompts aversion for some parents is tandem breastfeeding. Tandem breastfeeding is the practice of breastfeeding two or more children. It can look a lot of different ways.
Nursing a newborn and an older child(ren) at the same time (sometimes literally!)
Nursing multiples (twins, triplets, etc.)
Nursing and pumping for multiple children
For parents who experience aversion while tandem breastfeeding, the aversion is most commonly associated with their older child(ren). This can be a frustrating and scary experience for parents, especially when tandem breastfeeding is part of their plan.
Lack of self-care
We all have tons of self-care posts saved on our Instagram, but self-care is easier said than done for breastfeeding parents.
There’s less time in the day, less energy, and less room to, well, make room for oneself.
Especially when you already don’t have enough support on your breastfeeding journey.
For lots of parents, lacking self-care goes beyond not having time to do something nice for themselves. It can be not taking care of yourself on a basic level: getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, drinking enough water.
And for parents who are also dealing with chronic health conditions — whether physical or mental ones — they can feel extra depleted if they cannot practice good self-care.
How to cope with breastfeeding aversion
First of all, it’s critical that you know THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU. You have done nothing to cause aversion, and it says nothing about your love for your baby.
If you feel like you’re about to crawl out of your skin thanks (or no thanks) to aversion, please know that there are solutions and help available for you. While every parent is different, there are numerous ways to manage breastfeeding aversion successfully and continue to have a happy breastfeeding relationship with your children.
Work on stressful breastfeeding behaviors and practices
The idea of more breastfeeding when you’re experiencing aversion isn’t necessarily appealing, but making some changes can truly help lessen the impacts of aversion. For example, if your baby has a painful latch, it’s totally understandable that you’d not look forward to nursing.
But over time, those feelings can create stress around nursing sessions, and unfortunately, that stress can contribute to aversion.
However, these problems can be circumvented by working with a lactation consultant. Fixing bad latches, addressing frustrating nursing behaviors, helping parents figure out the best way to tandem breastfeed (if that’s their goal!) — they all are problems with solutions!
We’re not saying anyone should just ignore breastfeeding aversion. It’s important to get support and validation to help you through this challenge. But cognitive distraction is an important tool in combating aversion.
Why is that? When you’re experiencing aversion, your brain is overwhelmed by distressing stimuli. But when you introduce distractions, it prevents your brain from lingering on the aversion. You can try:
Watching TV or reading a book
Playing a game on your phone
Nurse while in the company of other people
Nurse in a sling or carrier so you can move about
Hold an ice cube or hand warmer for sensory distraction
Get enough sleep
We can’t say this enough: Sleep is so important. Yes, it’s somewhat out of your control when you have an infant (or, let’s be honest, any child) under your roof, but you need to function, stay happy and healthy, and generally have a better quality of life.
When talking about sleep and life with small children, it’s not that helpful to say you should get 8 hours a day. (Though that’s the standard!) What’s more helpful, really, is simply to say: Get as much sleep as possible—nap with your little one. Shift sleep with your partner. Ask a family member or friend to watch your child(ren).
Get as close to 8 hours of sleep a day as possible. (If you can get more, good for you!)
Make sure you’re eating and drinking well
Breastfeeding, even when you’re not experiencing aversion, requires you to fortify yourself — lots of parents note that they feel even hungrier during breastfeeding than they did during pregnancy.
So as a general rule, you should make sure to eat and drink to support your breastfeeding. What does that mean? Most parents should take in an extra 300-500 calories each day and make sure they’re drinking to thirst throughout the day. (And night!)
For parents who are experiencing breastfeeding aversion, increasing water intake anecdotally helps.
Try supplementing with magnesium
There isn’t conclusive research that backs adding magnesium as a supplement for breastfeeding. (But as we’ve noted, there isn’t much in the way of research on breastfeeding aversion, to begin with anyway!)
There is anecdotal evidence for using magnesium supplements to combat aversion. Some parents swear by magnesium-enhanced creams and lotions, while others prefer supplementing in pill form.
However, before you decide to supplement, it’s important to clear your supplements with your primary healthcare provider.
Get some time for yourself
If your breastfeeding aversion is triggered by the touched-outness that comes with breastfeeding, getting some personal space for yourself can help give you much-needed breathing room.
Make time each day to:
Go for a long walk, by yourself
Sit in a quiet room and read a book by yourself
Practice mindfulness meditation by yourself
You get the idea!
Get a checkup
Based on the research that does exist on breastfeeding aversion, it appears that hormones play a potentially significant role in aversion. This may be why breastfeeding aversion is somewhat more common for parents whose menstrual cycle has returned or who are pregnant.
If you’re struggling with aversion, ask your primary healthcare provider about running a blood test to check your LH, FSH, prolactin, estrogen, and progesterone levels. This kind of test can give you and your provider insight into anything abnormal or concerning.
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