As pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott said, there is “no such thing as a baby; there is only a baby and a mother.” Conversely, I suppose, there is no such thing as a mother, there is only a mother and a baby.

Breastfeeding, Sleeping, and Family Wellness

All humans enter the world with individual differences that influence how they respond to others in their environment, in particular, their mother. I had thought that the personality of the child arose exclusively from early mother-child interactions, but in fact, this is another example of nature and nurture being inexplicitly bound. The personality of the mother and the personality of the infant do not always “click.” They may find that they are struggling to connect with each other, neither one having any idea what it is all about.

As a therapist, I always keep in mind the individual child’s constitutional makeup (or temperament) along with the adult or adults in the room. As amazing as this may seem, infants may distort or misperceive their mother’s ministrations — even with mother’s best of intentions – as somehow threatening or unpleasant. I have learned that there are powerful unconscious elements within the mother and the infant that are transmitted to one another, making it incredibly difficult for them to get into the rhythm of nursing. This always goes hand in hand with sleeping, bonding and general feelings of wellbeing.

The family system is always another contributing factor, based upon its member’s constitutional proclivities and the alchemical mix – that includes siblings, partners, and extended family members. Given all this complexity in human dynamics and environmental factors, (work stress, moving, etc.) it is no wonder that becoming a parent, even for the second or third time, is often a very tricky operation – add social isolation to the mix and you have a mom struggling with treatable perinatal mood and anxiety disorder.

As a family, child and maternal mental health specialist, I find my attention wander around the consulting room as I try to make sense out of what I am experiencing, staying open to any surprises or revelations that any of the members, including the infant or child, can provide. Breastfeeding — and its interplay with sleep and overall family wellness — is a fundamental developmental event and a potent road to travel toward the healing of confusing emotional states moving around within the family. It is so much more than the provision of nourishment. When it goes well it is the very foundation of trust, love, creativity, and, surprisingly, thought and mental development itself. When it doesn’t go well, all is not lost. It is an area rich in opportunity for change and growth because it is so raw, primitive, and profound.

Sometimes breastfeeding makes a woman feel powerful and mama lioness-ish, whereby she is amazed that she is able to provide the milk her baby needs to survive with her own body. It is a time of closeness, bonding, and great beauty. But for other women, it is a terrible struggle for a myriad of reasons – it might stimulate body image issues, feelings of discomfort in the infant’s total dependency on her, or a diminishment of her adult sexuality. Whatever the reason, known or unknown, her difficulties mixed with her infant’s innate characteristics sometimes become a disheartening soup of reciprocal sadness and struggle, manifesting not only in breastfeeding difficulties but also in sleep disturbances. We clinicians know how to get to the bottom of things, so slowly these symptoms of distress can dissipate and life can go on. We are passionate about providing mothers with support on their journey to self-love, self-acceptance, and self-awareness because many of us have travelled the same rough terrain.

These two aspects of development in early life – feeding and sleeping — are so intricately entwined that they are really a matched set. In order to set up a sleep routine, for breastfeeding babies especially, but really for all babies, it takes a bit of time to get everything sorted out. Again, the way to a healthy sleep routine is as individual as the infants are, and feeding always goes hand in hand. We at Well Baby Center provide affordable parenting consultations to all new and continuing parents wanting to make sense of things because family wellness begins at the beginning.

Deborah and the Well Baby Center Family

Deborah Groening Rother is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist,  Doctor of Psychology (PsyD), and Certified Infant-Parent Mental Health Specialist. She is also the Clinic Director of Well Baby Center.