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Supporting women with breastfeeding trauma in a COVID-19 era: an EMDR Therapy approach

Posted Monday 2nd August 2021

Rachel Black,

PhD Researcher, Ulster University

Many of us have experienced life events that have left us with feelings that don’t seem to go away and that impact on how we experience the world. For some women negative breastfeeding experiences can have this effect and can influence whether they breastfeed any of their future babies. In short, they can be traumatic.

I was first introduced to this phenomenon before I was even a mother myself. When my nephew refused the breast after one month my sister told me “I am utterly heartbroken, I feel like he is rejecting me, am I not good enough?” She later told me the whole experience traumatised her. She still feels this way 8 years on. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon and many in breastfeeding support roles will be familiar with these sorts of stories. Research into women’s lived experiences of infant feeding has also found a similar narrative with grief, guilt and trauma a common theme, click the following links for more information:

For many people the concept of a breastfeeding trauma might seem quite abstract, however, our experience of life events is subjective. What we might experience as traumatic another person may not. For this reason, it is important to listen to women and really hear them when they say things like they are struggling, they are devastated, or they are traumatised.

Incredibly, so far, there is no research to find ways to help women who feel like this, which is why my research focuses on developing a way to help women heal from their experience and help to improve breastfeeding outcomes.

So, I want to invite you for a moment to imagine a therapy that could help to heal trauma by moving your eyes…

This is not a made-up concept, this is EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy. The theory behind EMDR was developed by Francine Shapiro and it suggests that the symptoms of trauma are linked to unprocessed memories stuck in an ancient part of our brain often referred to as the reptilian brain. This is the place where our fight, flight or freeze response comes from when we find ourselves in a crisis. When these memories get stuck all the thoughts and feelings get stuck too, which means they can be felt and relived as if they are still happening; this is what happens when someone experiences a flashback.

EMDR therapy works by using side to side eye movements to “unstick” these memories so they can be processed properly by the newer thinking part of our brain – the cortex. This may be similar to REM Sleep or rapid eye movement sleep that occurs when we process the day’s events.

In my research I am inviting pregnant women to take part in group online EMDR sessions, before and after their baby is born, to help unstick those negative breastfeeding memories so they no longer feel so vivid and upsetting. Research looking at online psychotherapy in the perinatal period has found it to be effective in reducing clinical symptoms of depression and anxiety, however, this project will be the first time the effectiveness of EMDR has been investigated using an online videoconferencing modality in a perinatal population.

My hope is that by creating a supportive space where women can heal through EMDR Therapy that their breastfeeding confidence will increase, their anxiety will be reduced. And that by doing so, they will be more likely to breastfeed their new baby and importantly that they will no longer be troubled by memories of the past.

For me, this piece of research is just one piece in a large puzzle to support and protect breastfeeding. Working in a multidisciplinary research team, alongside policy makers, community organisations, public health organisations, and those with lived experience, will enable us to provide a more supportive and enabling environment. This will not only help those who have had previous negative breastfeeding experiences but will help to prevent more women from experiencing breastfeeding trauma in the future.


1. Palmér L, Carlsson G, Mollberg M, Nyström M. Severe breastfeeding difficulties: Existential lostness as a mother—Women’s lived experiences of initiating breastfeeding under severe difficulties. Int J Qual Stud Health Well-Being. 2012 Jan;7(1):10846.

2. Palmér L. Previous breastfeeding difficulties: an existential breastfeeding trauma with two intertwined pathways for future breastfeeding—fear and longing. Int J Qual Stud Health Well-Being. 2019 Jan;14(1):1588034.

3. Brown A. Why Breastfeeding Grief and Trauma Matter. Pinter & Martin; 2019. (Why it Matters).

4. Labbok M. Exploration of Guilt Among Mothers Who Do Not Breastfeed: The Physician’s Role. J Hum Lact. 2008 Feb;24(1):80–4.

5. Shapiro F. Eye movement desensitization: A new treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 1989 Sep;20(3):211–7.

6. Black R, Sinclair M, Miller PW, Reid B, Mccullough J, Slater P, et al. The effectiveness of online psychotherapy interventions for the treatment of perinatal mental health disorders : a systematic review. 2021;19(1):6–18.


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