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Story | Research
12 April 2021

Unable to breastfeed, but still a good mother


Image source: Anukul, via Shutterstock

One woman talks about societal pressures to nurse, while a doctor from QF’s Sidra medicine explains how these conversations can affect a new parent’s mental health.

“Before birth, I got a milk pump to ensure that my baby would have natural milk when I go back to work, but after birth, this pump became my last hope for breastfeeding, after trying all other ways. Every day, I tried to pump more than eight times, but I was only getting a few drops. This made me wonder – was I a bad mother? Why does my baby refuse my milk? Why does my body let me down in this great maternal moment?”

Jassim’s mother talks about the pressures she was exposed to due to her inability to breastfeed, which left a huge impact on her mental health.

“Like every mother, I was very excited to breastfeed my baby, but the moment I put him on my chest, I discovered that I didn’t know how to do it. The nurse tried to teach me, and when my baby started getting colostrum, I heard the comments around me, such as – your baby is hungry, your milk is not enough, he needs a formula. All this made me feel confused and guilty,” Jassim’s mother says.

The calls of breastfeeding are everywhere – whether in doctors’ recommendations, posters in medical centers, campaigns on social media – but what if some mothers are unable to breastfeed; will they receive equal support? Or will they be at the receiving end of criticism and judgments?

Doctor Felice watt

Dr. Felice Watt, Division Chief at Adult Psychiatry for Women’s Mental Health, Sidra Medicine – a Qatar Foundation member – says: Awareness, care and support for breastfeeding mothers is the responsibility of husbands, parents and the community; however, mothers who may not be able to breastfeed also require such support.

Dr. Watt points out that a common mistake is to think that a mother will not be able to breastfeed just because she does not produce milk in the first days of childbirth, but rather colostrum. Colostrum is a breast fluid before breast milk is released. And as newborns tend, in the first few days, to lose some weight at this time, a new mother may be told that she does not have enough milk. Such lack of awareness of the normal breastfeeding process among people around the mother may put the mother on a pathway to be unable to breastfeed her baby, which for many mothers triggers feelings of grief and failure.

Jassim’s mother says that she did in fact receive criticism that reinforced her feelings of guilt, from being unable to breastfeed, to the size of her baby and her baby’s cries. She tried to continue pumping, eat large quantities of food, and intensify visits to the lactation clinic.

“Fenugreek, sweet foods and other kinds of foods were given to me by everyone around me, believing that it would help me produce milk. But there was no result, except that I gained extra weight in a short period,” Jassim’s mother says.

According to Dr. Watt, malnutrition is not a common factor in the inability to breastfeed, as many women in countries with high rates of malnutrition are able to breastfeed their babies normally. Reasons for breastfeeding problems could range from lack of knowledge and assistance with breastfeeding, the baby having difficulty latching on to the breast, and rarely, for hormonal reasons, or secondary to previous breast surgery.

“I visited a counseling center that specializes in breastfeeding training. I learned a lot, but the growing impatience around me, and continuous criticism shrunk my motivation,” the new mother says.

This pressure caused Jassim’s mother to isolate herself in her room, and eventually give up and stop trying. She began to feed formula milk to her child regularly, but paradoxically, that also led to more criticism.

“Breastfeeding is sometimes a challenging experience for a new mother who may be battling broken sleep and many other demands whilst learning to care for her baby. A mother can become really exhausted and impacted emotionally” Dr Watt says.

While encouraging mothers to breastfeed, near and dear ones must also help new mothers in every way possible. These new mothers may have other commitments such as returning to work within a few weeks of giving birth or resuming studies at university. “There is no doubt that Qatar is one among those countries that offer a good amount of maternity leave as well as support during working hours. But sadly, for some women, sometimes maternity leaves may not be enough. And this coupled with lack of support makes it very hard for new mothers,” Dr. Watt says.

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All this causes a small percentage of mothers to continue breastfeeding for up to six months. For example, a study conducted in Qatar in 2017 shows that 96.2 percent of mothers started breastfeeding in the hospital, but only 24 percent of them continued until the six months.

With Jassim now reaching the age of five months, and completely dependent on formula milk, Jassim’s mother still faces challenges. She says: “Wherever I go, I hear comments such as – poor baby, have you kept away from breastfeeding to lose weight and avoid slouching; or that you are not a perfect mother.

“I may be one among millions of mothers who have been unable to breastfeed, which is not our fault. But we are still mothers, who take care of our children, protect them and give them unconditional love. My son is in good health and he is a happy child, who does not stop laughing and playing. And this is enough to make me a proud mom, and a good mom.”

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