August is Breastfeeding Awareness Month, and we at Pregnancy After Loss Support (PALS) wanted to share the unique experiences pregnant and parenting after loss moms (PAL) face when breastfeeding their babies born after loss. Each mom’s breastfeeding journey differs greatly—even between each child—and those journeys are further complicated by loss of a previous pregnancy or infant. These are nine things our community wants moms pregnant and parenting after a loss and those supporting PAL moms to know about breastfeeding after loss.
1. Responses to milk coming in after pregnancy and infant loss vary widely.
Many moms feel that the arrival of breast milk and accompanying engorgement is the final betrayal of their bodies after their babies died. For others, though, the arrival of their milk is a way to honor the baby who died by donating their breast milk to milk banks for preemies and other babies in need.
2. The choice to breastfeed, pump and bottle-feed, or formula feed is influenced heavily by the loss experience.
For moms who experienced their milk coming in after loss and struggled with engorgement while waiting for their milk to dry up, engorgement can be a significant trigger. These moms may desperately want to breastfeed their babies born after loss so they can avoid that trigger. But, for other moms, they cannot even contemplate breastfeeding their babies born after loss. It is important to remember and validate that there is no right or wrong response. Each mom needs to make the best decision for her and her baby. Whether that choice is to breastfeed, pump and bottle-feed, formula feed, or choose a combination of the three, feeling confident in her decision will help the PAL mom with both coping and bonding.
3. Difficulties with supply can be devastating after milk came in with her baby who died.
Both loss moms who let their milk dry up and those who pumped and donated their milk felt devastated and betrayed when they had supply issues with their babies born after loss. These moms need extra support with deciding how to move forward–whether they work to increase their supply, supplement with donor milk or formula, or move to formula feeding exclusively.
4. Pregnant and parenting after loss moms need support from health care professionals.
PAL moms reported that they needed support and validation from a variety of healthcare professionals. Planning with their midwife or OB before birth helped them have an action plan for breastfeeding immediately after delivery, as well as options to explore if breastfeeding was challenging due to common breastfeeding issues like latch and supply or emotional issues like grief and trauma. Having a chance to plan with their midwife or OB validated the unique experience of breastfeeding after loss, which is vital for the PAL mom. Once the baby has arrived, the PAL mom may need additional support from a lactation consultant and therapist to work through the physical and emotional challenges that arise.
5. Pregnant and parenting after loss moms need support from family and friends.
Whatever feeding choices the PAL mom makes, she needs the support of her friends and family. The PAL mom experiences extra layers of emotions after birth, and if those closest to her invalidate her decisions, she can feel unnecessarily shaken and unsure. To succeed in feeding (whatever feeding options she chooses) and bonding with her baby, she may need extra handholding and encouragement from her nearest and dearest. PAL moms, be sure to reach out and let your family and friends know how they can support you.
6. Breastfeeding her baby born after loss can be healing.
For moms who struggle through the initial challenges of breastfeeding, they often find that breastfeeding their baby born after loss can be a healing experience. PAL moms feel so betrayed by their bodies for not keeping alive their baby who died. To experience her body nourishing her living baby through breastfeeding can help repair the relationship with her body.
7. Breastfeeding can help her bond with baby.
So many PAL moms really struggle to bond with their babies during pregnancy after loss. They are afraid to bond, to have their hearts broken again. They need their babies alive in their arms to really begin the bonding process. Skin-to-skin and breastfeeding can connect mom and baby in those early hours and significantly help with bonding after birth.
8. Breastfeeding can cause significant guilt.
While breastfeeding can help with bonding, it can also cause significant feelings of guilt. Breastfeeding is one of the first tangible experiences that loss moms missed with their babies who died. Having those moments with her subsequent baby brings all sorts of emotions to the surface. Feeling joy, relief, contentment, and other “happy” emotions can be immediately followed by feeling guilt over bonding with and loving this new baby.
9. Fed is best.
PAL moms encourage each other to feed their babies, no matter if they choose to breastfeed, bottle-feed, or formula feed. Each mom needs significant general support when her subsequent child is born. There is no right way to feed your baby born after a loss and no shame in those choices. For the PAL mom especially, fed really is best. Feel validated in whatever choice you make.