Breastfeeding and how it affects mental health
Breastfeeding can help protect new mums against postnatal depression but it is vital they are given adequate support.
When women breastfeed, their body produces oxytocin – a feel-good hormone which helps lower their stress levels and boost their mood. When breastfeeding is going well, mums often report feeling calmer and more content during feeding sessions.
However, it is important that breastfeeding itself can be a source of stress. If you are experiencing difficulties breastfeeding or it is painful or uncomfortable, this can have a negative impact on your mental health.
Women who don’t feel supported to breastfeed or who feel unable to continue due to problems may be more likely to experience postnatal depression or other issues with their mental health. This is why it is essential that new mums seek breastfeeding support and do not attempt to struggle on by themselves.
If you find your baby is reluctant to feed, breastfeeding feels uncomfortable or you are worried your little one is not getting enough milk, speak to your midwife or health visitor for advice. They may also be able to direct you towards other sources of support in your local area, which may include going to a breastfeeding café or drop-in support session, calling a helpline or making an appointment with a lactation consultant.
Is there a link between breastfeeding and maternal mental health?
Research suggests that women who breastfeed are less likely to become depressed than those who don’t. This is believed to be because breastfeeding reduces feelings of stress and encourages new mums to spend time interacting with and bonding with their babies.
A 2014 study published in the journal Maternal and Child Health found mothers who planned to breastfeed and then were able to were 50% less likely to experience depression than those who wanted to breastfeed but then didn’t. This highlights the importance of proper support for those who want to breastfeed their babies.
A 2002 study measured the stress levels of mums straight after feeding their baby. It found breastfeeding decreased negative moods, an effect which wasn’t seen among those who used a bottle to feed their baby.
What should I do if I am finding breastfeeding difficult?
If you want to breastfeed and you are finding it challenging, this may make you feel stressed and anxious and have a negative impact on your mental health. Ask for support with breastfeeding as soon as your baby is born so you can get help with technique and positioning.
If you have any concerns about feeding, speak to your midwife or health visitor. Find out about breastfeeding support services in your area and ask for help as soon as you encounter a challenge – don’t wait until you feel you have reached a crisis point.
How can I look after my mental health while breastfeeding?
Breastfeeding can be exhausting, especially in the early days where your newborn is likely to be feeding very frequently. Accept as much help and support from family and friends as you can.
Prioritise feeding and resting over other tasks as much as possible. No one cares if your house is spotless so forget the housework for a while and spend time bonding with your baby and sleeping as much as you can.
Spend time talking to other new mums who will understand the challenges you face. Going to a mother and baby group or breastfeeding café will help you meet like-minded new parents and help you feel less isolated.