Book review by Leia Basko
When Breastfeeding Sucks, by Zainab Yate, is available from Pinter and Martin as a printed book for £12.99, or on Kindle for £7.99: https://www.pinterandmartin.com/when-breastfeeding-sucks
I chose this book because I’ve become a very passionate advocate for breastfeeding and breastfeeding support and wanted to better understand some issues women face. This was a really interesting book about breastfeeding aversion centred around a woman’s experience; an issue that has not been widely discussed or studied. Whilst reading this book I recognised some patterns of moderate aversion in my own breastfeeding journey which has helped me to understand and process what I have found challenging.
The beginning of the book describes aversion as a multilayered issue that affects women in many different ways. She writes about the different symptoms and the spectrum of aversion, as well as how hormones, specifically oxytocin and others related to a woman’s menses, and sleep deprivation can contribute to aversion. She introduces the word ‘skinship’ which is a mix of the words ‘skin’ and ‘friendship’ and describes the “interaction through skin contact that builds love or closeness”. (pg. 18) This word appears quite frequently in the book and is quite useful in explaining the dynamic relationship that is breastfeeding. It also was used to describe the ways in which it can contribute to aversion and feelings of being ‘touched-out’ or trapped in motherhood.
The chapters are organised in a way that makes it easy to understand aversion from various different angles. What resonates is the third part of the book where she dives into greater detail around biology and society. She elaborates on a common theme in modern day mothering which is that expectations rarely meet our realities and as a consequence we suffer from a wide range of mental health problems. Throughout the 20th century there was a lot of conditioning away from the biological norm of mothering and breastfeeding, which has set the tone for subsequent generations of unrealistic expectations and normal infant behaviours. A confusion that commercial marketing has capitalised on. She touches upon the loss of community, the prevailing attitude of individualism and self-sovereignty in today’s western society that doesn’t value the role of being a mother. This contributes to the pressure we feel to be ‘someone’, that being a mother isn’t enough, and in turn leaves us feeling disillusioned and ill prepared for the restrictions of breastfeeding.
Another concept she introduces, that I’d never come across before, is the polyvagal theory of the social nervous system which suggests that our behaviour and health are impacted by our social circumstances (pg.127). Basically, we are affected by other peoples’ perception of the situation; we look to other people to help assess the situation and if they are similar to what we are feeling we feel a sense of relief. This can be beneficial, for instance when one is in a breastfeeding support group and we can receive reassurance from other women. But it can also have adverse effects when our babies start mirroring the emotions of our aversion. They become more needy and clingy, therefore leading to a positive feedback loop that exacerbates aversion.
In the fourth and final part of the book, Yate writes about the psychology behind aversion and how a lot of time post natal depression and anxiety are often misdiagnosed and confused with breastfeeding aversion. She notes the importance of fully understanding your symptoms before devising a treatment plan. What I liked most in this part of the book was her chapter on ways to alleviate aversion which focuses on preventative care. She provides a chart on ‘Navigating Aversion’ which first helps you to understand where your aversion is coming from. It then goes on to discuss elements to alleviate your feeling of aversion, exploring concepts such as expectations, diet and hydration, mindfulness and sleep hygiene. She even mentions the importance of a healthy microbiome with more research indicating the large role it plays in our behaviours.
Yate states that “Aversion itself isn’t necessarily the problem: it can be an indicator of other problems, though what these are will vary” (pg. 174). I think this was an interesting concept after discussing the symptoms of aversion, that aversion could actually be the symptom. Taking a look at your mind, body and lifestyle in a holistic way can help you not only alleviate breastfeeding aversion but help with your overall health and wellbeing. Of course, she recognises that this isn’t always possible or that simple and some people have traumas they have to work through which can make finding solutions to aversion more difficult.
One small part of the book that I found could potentially cause confusion was where she parallels breastfeeding toddlers with addictive behaviours. Whilst I understand her argument of breastfeeding being more than just milk, and babies can have a dependency of sorts, I think that it could be an unhelpful and slightly confusing parallel without going deeper into the psychology of addiction. I think there is a large majority of people, and cultures, that don’t understand the complexities of addictive behaviours and this misunderstanding could potentially contribute to the idea that toddlers can become addicted to breastfeeding. This could lead to the discontinuation of breastfeeding past a certain age when we know that natural weaning happens anywhere between the ages of 2 to 7 years.
Overall, I found this book to be very insightful with a lot of really good information and tips that I can apply to my own life and to those that I will help in the future. I think this book went beyond breastfeeding aversion and asked us to be honest with ourselves and attempt to strip away the decades of conditioning that tells us who we should be and how we should mother. Furthermore, with the ever increasing studies looking at human lactation, we will hopefully one day have a better understanding of the issues faced not only by women but by everyone who chooses to embark on this journey. I would definitely recommend this book to a client that was experiencing aversion and I think it could also be useful in helping women prepare for breastfeeding and ultimately avoiding aversion.
Leia Basko is a Nurturing Birth doula and trainee breastfeeding counsellor