Breastfeeding and postnatal depression

Some mothers find breastfeeding easy and others find it very difficult. For those women who are at risk of postnatal depression the additional stresses and feelings of failure that may come with breastfeeding difficulties may add to a deterioration in mental health.

There is evidence to suggest however that breastfeeding can actually help to prevent the feelings of mild postnatal depression.

Have a look at the article below, taken from the La Leche league website.

Breastfeeding and Postnatal Depression

In 2014 the journal Maternal and Child Health published a study looking at breastfeeding and maternal depression. It found that mothers who planned to breastfeed and went on to do so were around 50% less likely to become depressed than mothers who had not planned to, and who did not, breastfeed1.

This study emphasises how crucial it is for mothers to know how to get support so they can continue breastfeeding for as long as they want to. Furthermore it shows that access to support may play a key role in helping to prevent postnatal depression.

Breastfeeding can protect against Postnatal Depression

The study showed that breastfeeding has well-established benefits to babies, in terms of their physical health and cognitive development. It also showed that breastfeeding benefits the mental health of mothers.

Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, PhD, IBCLC and La Leche League Leader agrees in her book Depression and New Mothers. She reports that “rates of depression are lower in breastfeeding mothers than their non- breastfeeding counterparts”. She also notes that “breastfeeding is protective of maternal mental health because it reduces the stress response”. Breastfeeding has been demonstrated to enhance interactions between mothers and babies: mothers who breastfeed show increased physiological and social responsiveness to their babies. Breastfed babies have been shown to be more alert and responsive and more reciprocity and affection has been observed in breastfeeding dyads.

When Postnatal Depression is diagnosed

If a woman becomes depressed while breastfeeding some health care professionals consider breastfeeding a risk factor, and they might urge her to stop in order to recover. This does not take into account the research demonstrating breastfeeding’s protective effect on maternal health. Many medications for postnatal depression are compatible with breastfeeding: it should be possible to discuss a treatment plan with health professionals which is right for each individual circumstance.

In Depression and New Mothers Kendall Tackett explains why breastfeeding protects babies from the harmful effects of maternal depression. One reason is that by simply breastfeeding mothers are more likely to touch, stroke, and make eye contact with their babies. She says another possible explanation for the beneficial effect includes the release of feel-good hormones when milk is produced. This is one more reason for encouraging mothers to continue to breastfeed even while depressed.

A 2004 study also found that breastfeeding protected infants from the harmful effects of maternal depression. The study compared four groups of infants: infants of depressed mothers who were either breast or bottle-feeding, and infants of non-depressed mothers who were either breast or bottle-feeding. The infants of depressed bottle-feeding mothers had abnormal brain activation patterns, such as those found in previous studies. But the infants of depressed breastfeeding mothers were no different than those of non-depressed mothers.

Stress can affect depression

Writing in Leaven, a publication produced by La Leche League International, August-September 2005, Kendall-Tackett explains how stress and fatigue can increase risk for depression, but lowering stress can be protective. This is an area where breastfeeding can make a difference.

A 2002 study8 compared maternal stress levels after both breast and bottle-feeding, with 28 mothers who were doing both. They measured stress immediately after breastfeeding, and immediately after these same mothers bottle-fed. The design of this study allowed the authors to account for pre-existing differences in mothers who chose to breastfeed rather than bottle feed since each mother was compared to herself. They found that the act of breastfeeding decreased mothers’ negative moods, and when these same women bottle-fed, bottle-feeding decreased their positive mood.

Support needed for breastfeeding difficulties

While breastfeeding is very effective in lowering stress, breastfeeding difficulties can increase stress and this may contribute to developing depression. It is vitally important that women who want to breastfeed get the support they need.

Dr Iacovou says “However good the level of support that’s provided, there will be some mothers who wanted to breastfeed and who don’t manage to. It’s clear that these mothers need a great deal of understanding and support; there is currently hardly any skilled specialist help for these mothers, and this is something else that health providers should be thinking about.”.

La Leche League GB agrees with her comments that “Lots of mothers and babies take to breastfeeding pretty easily. But for many others, it doesn’t come naturally at all; for these mothers, having someone with the training, the skills, and perhaps most importantly the time to help them get it right, can make all the difference.”

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