ACT and Breastfeeding

You can breastfeed anytime and anywhere you need to

Breastfeeding is definitely a time in my life that knowing about ACT has come in useful. There are lots of practical resources out there on the physical side and plenty support groups where I live – and I imagine in other urban areas of the UK too – but perhaps less on breastfeeding and mental health and wellbeing. ACT is a great model as a starter there.


The most uppermost in my mind when I started breastfeeding my daughter was why I wanted to. I’d had a relatively tough time giving birth to her and it hadn’t gone how I’d planned at all. I had read lots about the benefits to my baby of breastfeeding and also the practical benefits for me. For example, reduced chance of asthma and allergies which both run in my husband’s family, association with reduced dental decay and higher IQ for the baby. Also less ear infections and tummy upsets for the baby linked with sharing my immune system. I found it interesting that there was less written about maternal mental health and breastfeeding. I would imagine that pressure to breastfeed without adequate emotional support would put many women’s mental health at risk – which is where ACT strategies could come in. There have definitely been benefits to my mental health when breastfeeding with these strategies. For example, the constant oxytocin hits, being able to snuggle with my daugher in baby cinema as a tiny baby since all she needed for comfort was a feed, the justification for snuggling up with a book for half an hour rather than doing the house work. Also, no need to get out of bed to feed at night due to mastering sleepy feeding lying down and co-sleeping. So for me, breastfeeding fit with my parenting values of doing my best for my daughter’s health, our respective mental health and our relationship with each other. I think it’s helpful however for every woman to make her own assessment of her own values as a woman and of her parenting values as mother and review whether breastfeeding fits those before starting. For example, a woman whose values would lead her to need to resume work away from her baby by 6 months might want to consider combination feeding, someone who strongly valued an adult social life with alcohol and late nights away from her baby might also want to consider combination feeding, and someone with several other children already might choose that the older children’s need for time meant exclusive breastfeeding wasn’t the most efficient way. Equally, someone with those values might strongly value

breastfeeding enough to want to make it work. The point is, taking time to reflect on values is helpful in choosing how to feed your baby.

Helpful values questions deciding whether to breastfeed

how do you feel about breastfeeding your baby?

Is it something you want to do for you and your baby, aside from any pressure from others?

How does your partner (if you have one) feel about breastfeeding?

If Breastfeeding is important to you, why?

Which benefits of breastfeeding fit with your own values?

What might you hope to gain from breastfeeding – for you? For your child?

What do you see as possible costs of breastfeeding? To you? To your child? To others important to you like a partner or children or friends? How do these costs sit with your values?

Am I willing to accept the costs I’ve identified in service of breastfeeding my child and accessing the benefits I’ve identified to what I value?

The answers will vary hugely woman to woman, and it is helpful to think only about what is right for your own situation rather than objectively what is right or wrong – this is about you and your baby and you decide.

Opening up to experience

Another helpful ACT concept here is about willingness. As humans we are highly motivated to avoid pain, and much as I’ve loved breastfeeding the first month particularly was hard. Toe curling pain at every feed, scabby nipples, learning to tolerate the initial awkwardness of feeding in public. I had permanent cabbage leaves in my bra and was constantly sending someone to a shop for more nipple cream. I also had the cluster feeding baby on the postnatal ward who occasionally came up for air only for a midwife to point out she was showing feeding cues (again). At 3am I remember one poor woman asking if she could please move ward away from us due to the noise. In my daughter’s defence, she’s very tenacious when she wants something – especially food – and couldn’t be expected to understand that my milk wouldn’t come in until day 5 (by which time we were home). I was willing to have all of that in the short term in return for the long term benefits of breast feeding. I’m lucky that the pay offs started when my milk came in – my daughter then gradually became willing to sleep on something other than me for short bursts of time, so I could sleep too. My appetite rose to my previous marathon training proportions and I enjoyed that I could out-eat my husband and still lose weight without leaving the sofa. My daughter gained weight well and remained an enthusiastic feeder but was generally happy provided I was with her.

Good willingness questions

Am I willing to tolerate pain in service of breastfeeding my child? If I gave my willingness a mark out of ten, what score would I give?

Are there limits to this, eg what if I get thrush or mastitis?

Is it helpful to set myself an initial goal length and then review if I want to continue?

If I am willing to do this accepting there may be pain, what coping strategies am I open to trying? Cabbage leaves? Nipple shields? Nipple cream?

How do I feel about feeding in front of my family, in front of extended family, my friends, the public?

Am I willing to feed in front of those people? Am I willing to tolerate the feelings that might come up? Are there compromises that might work? Do I want to use a cover up when feeding?


Normally Defusion is helpful for getting space from my own thoughts and feelings. In a breastfeeding context though, I’ve often found it most helpful for getting space from other people’s. For example, my husband’s mum managed 6 weeks of breastfeeding and he often expressed not expecting me to last longer than that, although I wanted to try to. So when I was complaining of pain after the first couple of weeks, he said “so my mum managed 6 weeks and you’ve only done 2”. I was able to take a couple of deep breaths and consider that I hadn’t had the opportunity yet to manage more than 2 weeks but that didn’t mean I couldn’t, and I was still willing to try.

#breastfeeding #ACT #mental health

Published by Mummy ACT

Qualified Clinical Psychologist blogging about pregnancy, miscarriage and parenting in the early years using tools from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Compassion Focussed Therapy during a pandemic

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