How Breastfeeding Affects Mental Health
Dr. Martha Walsh
| 3 min read
Mothers who breastfeed often have a lot of questions in the first few weeks, especially if it is their first time nursing a baby. They might wonder if the baby is getting enough milk, or if the child is latching on and being positioned correctly in their arms, among other common concerns. However, one thing many new mothers might not anticipate is how the challenges of breastfeeding can affect their own mental health, which millions of women experience each year.
Breastfeeding can have both positive and negative cognitive effects for a woman, research has shown. A woman’s experience depends heavily on their circumstances, how much support they have and how much stress is linked to nursing on any given day.
Breast milk provides a complete source of nutrition and carries a lot of benefits for babies, even in small amounts. However, many mothers do not nurse their babies as long as they initially intend. More support is needed for mothers to keep breastfeeding as an option.
Statistics show that of babies born in the U.S., 83% receive some breast milk as part of their overall nutrition at birth. For one-month-olds, that number dips to 78% and by the time babies are six months old, 55% are still being breastfed, with 25% receiving breast milk exclusively.
Stress of breastfeeding
When facing problems with breastfeeding, women may experience feelings of depression or symptoms similar to post traumatic stress syndrome. Common breastfeeding stressors include problems getting the baby to latch onto the breast, lack of milk supply and not enjoying the feeling of breastfeeding.
Some ways to better manage breastfeeding and reduce stress include:
- Breastfeed when baby is hungry, not on a schedule set by adults
- Create a dedicated space with a favorite chair, relaxing music and quiet surroundings
- Talk with other moms and share experiences for tips and support
- Work with a lactation consultant to talk through challenges and problem-solve
Mental health benefits of breastfeeding
Once a successful breastfeeding routine is established, moms may notice a few of the benefits of breastfeeding. Most of these benefits revolve around oxytocin, a hormone that stimulates milk production. These benefits include:
- Boosting the emotional bond between mother and child
- Increasing feelings of affection for the child
- Decreasing stress levels
- Promoting a sense of calm
Support available for those struggling
For anyone struggling with feeling down or depressed about breastfeeding, there is support available. Women should talk to their health care provider if they think difficulties with breastfeeding might be affecting their emotional well-being. While a short period of the “baby blues” following delivery is considered normal, long periods of sadness may be a sign of postpartum depression.
For more support at home, communication is key. Women shouldbe honest with their partners or close relatives about what kind of support they need. This could mean extra help at home, delegating certain chores or tasks, or dedicated alone time each day for self-care.
Women returning to a workplace can speak with their employer about scheduling breaks to pump breast milk. Most employers are required by law to offer nursing mothers reasonable accommodations in their schedule and with a comfortable, safe, private place to pump that is not a bathroom.
Other ways to find support for breastfeeding include:
- Find a certified lactation consultant in your area
- Find a local breastfeeding support group
- The La Leche League has online resources
Breastfeeding can be a blessing and also amental struggle for many moms. However, with adequate support and resources, it is possible to more easily navigate the journey and find the best feeding solutions for mom and baby.
Martha Walsh, M.D., is a senior medical director and associate chief medical officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. For more health news and information, visit MIBluesPerspectives.com.
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