breastfeeding and body image - black and white photo

The Haven Group answers the most common questions about breastfeeding and body issues

Breastfeeding isn’t always easy or intuitive. Between this and our cultural tendency to sexualize breasts, some mothers develop a negative relationship with their bodies. This is actually more common than you may think, which is why we’re taking the time to address the issue with the women at Chicago’s The Haven Group. If you’re feeling exceptionally critical about your breasts or your body, we want you to know that you are not alone, and there are steps you can take to improve your self image and outlook.

The relationship between breastfeeding and body issues, and how to change your outlook from negative to positive

How common is it for women who are breastfeeding to have body issues?

Because many women already struggle with varying degrees of body image concerns, it is not unusual for them to have a heightened experience when breastfeeding. There are so many physical changes that occur during pregnancy and thereafter—which are difficult enough—and having to use the body for an entirely new function like breastfeeding can really challenge women. It is an entirely new relationship with the body and its purpose.

Is there a psychological factor that plays into this relationship? If so, what is it?

There are absolutely psychological factors that come into play with body image and breastfeeding. This has to do with several different issues. First, it very much depends on the woman’s historical relationship with her body and her breasts. It also relates to her overall feelings about breastfeeding and its purpose. For some women, nursing is focused more on bonding and attachment. For others, it’s concentrated on milk solely as a source of nourishment. The physical intimacy that is required for breastfeeding can also be difficult depending on past experiences, possible trauma, or even just personality type.

How can you tell if a breastfeeding mother is feeling negatively about her body?

Often times, the way a nursing mother talks about her breastfeeding experience can signify how she’s feeling about the process and her body. Culturally in the U.S., we attach a lot of sexuality to the breasts. Thinking about them as sources of food can be quite a shift for many moms, and we see this come out in several ways. A mother may present as frustrated, anxious, or shameful that there are breastfeeding challenges in terms of production, latch, etc. She may also express embarrassment or fear about her new body in terms of her sexuality.

What can women do to take the negative feelings and turn them into a more positive outlook?

They can be gentle with themselves and remember that breastfeeding is an enormous adjustment and responsibility that is unlike anything she has done before. Even the most confident new moms who feel comfortable caring for a newborn have never breastfed, and they can help to reframe the experience for themselves in several ways. First, they should think about what an amazing thing their bodies are actually doing by nourishing a child solely with their breast milk. It’s remarkable! Second, remember that this is a learned skill—for both mom and baby—and it takes time and patience to build up a level of comfort with the actual feeding.

Are there any groups women who are feeling negatively about their bodies can join? What are some other ways they can get help?

Yes! Any groups that can provide women with safe communities where they can share their experiences are helpful. Even online support can be very valuable. Locally, the Breastfeed Chicago Facebook Group is a resource women turn to. La Leche League has local chapters all across the country and in-person meetings all moms can attend. Any new mom groups run by a reputable agency or practitioner are going to be a good resource for a breastfeeding mom.

Can you share a story or example of someone who had body issues while breastfeeding?

We worked with a client who really struggled at the beginning with her supply, and this led to her feeling like her breasts were not serving their purpose in feeding her son. She had a great deal of shame about it and also wondered if it would affect her bond if she stopped. In addition, she was struggling to resume an intimate relationship with her husband, because she no longer felt like she could be a sexual being. With support via therapy and cognitive behavioral work, as well as coordinated support with a lactation consultant, she was able to successfully reframe her feelings and experiences. She gained a greater level of self-respect for her body, and was able to view it in a new way, internalizing both its function and its role in her sexuality.

How can friends and family support you?

Family and friends (especially those who have breastfed before) can provide validation and normalization. Sharing experiences and starting honest conversations is so important for any new mom, especially those struggling with feeding and body image. We would encourage partners to be understanding and reassuring of the changes and pressures that can come with this experience.

About The Haven Group

Based in Chicago, The Haven Group offers a range of support services for family members. From the early stages of family planning through the transitions into new roles and dynamics, The Haven Group aims to provide comprehensive care that goes beyond the range of a typical mental health professional. As therapists in addition to former birth and postpartum doulas, the clinicians at The Haven Group have unique perspectives on the challenges that women and their families can face in the prenatal and postpartum periods. Through counseling services, The Haven Group strives to assist individuals and families in identifying and managing any areas of new or changing family issues that may be challenging.

For more information about The Haven Group and their services, please contact Jenny and Amanda at info@havengroupchicago.com.