Breastfeeding aversion affects one in five women

4 minute read

Mothers have described feeling anxious, sickened and angry but unable to talk about it because of social stigma.

One in five Australian women feels aversion while breastfeeding, but for women who push through, most say the experience of breastfeeding is good, research finds. 

The survey of 5500 Australian women found a surprisingly high rate of aversion, defined as negative feelings the entire time the child was latched. 

“Breastfeeding aversion response has previously been described using affective descriptions of negative sensations such as sickening, tiring and exhausting rather than feelings of nociceptive pain which is caused by tissue damage,” the authors wrote in Maternal and Child Nutrition

In earlier work by the research group, a woman described it as “anxiety in the pit of your stomach or anger. Like the anger that you feel that this is happening and you can’t do anything to stop it. […] It makes me shiver.” 

“You want to throw your child off,” another said. “You just can’t feel this feeling like you’ve got something crawling underneath your entire skin, that’s why this felt like you wanted to rip your skin off and just, you know, escape it.” 

Women also described feelings of isolation and shame around their negative feelings. 

“Women experiencing breastfeeding aversion response also did not feel that they were able to speak about unpleasant breastfeeding sensations as a result of social stigma around sharing negative breastfeeding sentiments,” the researchers said. 

Common risk factors for the aversion were the return of menstruation, falling pregnant while breastfeeding, breastfeeding multiple children at once and first-time breastfeeding. Rates of aversion were highest in mothers of lower socioeconomic status and lower education level. 

However, women reported having better experiences breastfeeding with subsequent children. 

Data shows one in five Australian women stop breastfeeding entirely after four months, despite recommendations to breastfeed for a minimum of six months. 

But support of a partner helped women continue to breastfeed, research showed

“[My partner] would recognise what was happening and would take [child one] away and distract him with something, like ‘let’s go check a letterbox’ or ‘let’s go and feed the chickens’. While I stayed inside and fed [child two] quietly without someone hassling me for that feeding session,” a woman said. 

Other effective methods of managing aversion included meditation, positive self-talk, distraction and magnesium supplements. The researchers also found if women could persist with breastfeeding through the initial months, the aversion lessened. 

They also found that less than 5% of women in the study had no breastfeeding complications. Despite this, almost 90% of women reported their overall breastfeeding experience was good. Surprisingly, 83% of women with aversion said the experience was good, with 44% saying it was very good.  


“Previous research has shown that some who experience complex breastfeeding challenges will not receive adequate support; however, those who do receive good support are more likely to overcome breastfeeding issues and continue to breastfeed,” the researchers said. 

President of the Australian Psychological Society Dr Catriona Davis-McCabe said some aversion may be related to other underlying psychological disorders – including body dysmorphia, perinatal mental health conditions and childhood trauma – and could be exacerbated by fatigue. 

“Maternal fatigue and exhaustion may exacerbate feelings of breastfeeding aversion response, so taking steps to ensure a breastfeeding mother’s health and wellbeing is maintained may be beneficial,” she said.  

“Strategies may include taking care of the fundamental building blocks of good health (sleep, nutrition, exercise, relaxation time etc.), as well as seeking peer and healthcare support, such as from a psychologist.   

“A psychologist can offer women who are experiencing breastfeeding aversion response support and strategies to help address the issues they are facing, by assisting them to identify their breastfeeding goals, understand how breastfeeding aversion response is impacting them and find solutions to overcome their distress.” 

“Psychologists can also help women to address stigma surrounding their experience of breastfeeding aversion response, whether that be internalised feelings of guilt and shame for instance, or perceived social stigma.” 

Maternal & Child Nutrition, online 25 May

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