Does breastfeeding protect you from postpartum depression?
We’ve all heard it before: breastfeeding benefits you and your baby. But is it possible that breastfeeding can also help you avoid postpartum depression (PPD) or baby blues after your baby is born?
A little background might be helpful: PPD is reported to affect between 11%-20% of women in the U.S., or about 600,000 women, and can impact virtually any woman from pregnancy through the baby’s first few months and on. A few signs include excessive crying for no apparent reason, quick mood changes, intense anxiety that keeps you from doing daily tasks, forgetting things easily, headaches, unable to sleep or oversleeping, withdrawing from family/friends, etc.
There is unfortunately a relative lack of consistent research on the connection between PPD and breastfeeding. Studies in the past had results that varied all over the place, from saying that PPD risk was higher for moms that stopped breastfeeding before 12 weeks, to saying there was no difference in risk if you breastfed or not.
From the handful of newer studies done on the subject, the majority concluded that breastfeeding may not directly benefit mothers’ abilities to fend off PPD, but instead does so indirectly if there are the right conditions: moms with high positive emotions.
The studies found that the higher the positive emotions a mother has when breastfeeding, the lower her depression and anxiety symptoms.
The culprit behind why high positive emotions are helpful are because when you have high positive emotions while breastfeeding, you will be less stressed. So what if you aren’t experiencing high positive emotions while breastfeeding, but rather anxiety, resentment, stress, etc.? Occasionally, breastfeeding may stir up all of these emotions in the mother, and it’s those strong emotions and stress that increases your risk for PPD.
But then how do we reduce the stress of having breastfeeding issues? The short answer seems to be that we need to create positive breastfeeding experiences, and what that means is that sometimes we need support from educated caregivers on breastfeeding, and sometimes also we need to join groups that include other women who have gone through, or are going through similar experiences so that we can learn from one another.
However, it may also be the case that the best option for you is to not breastfeed. We’ve all heard the newer adage “breast is best” but that may not be the case if trying to breastfeed is adding to your stress, and therefore contributing to your PPD. A happy mom is crucial for a baby, so if that means no breastfeeding for whatever reason, then sometimes that is what is best.
Interesting research came out from examining mom and baby pairs before and after breastfeeding, where researchers examined their levels of oxytocin (the hormone that is known to make you feel all lovey). They tested the saliva of these pairs and found that some moms had gene types that caused them to release less oxytocin while breastfeeding, which resulted in having higher levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in their saliva than the moms who had the gene type making more oxytocin.
What this means is that some moms actually don’t get as much of the “happy hormones” when they breastfeed (and neither do their babies), which results in them not getting the reduction of stress from breastfeeding, even if they can do it successfully.
The takeaway is if you want to, but are struggling to breastfeed, and have realized you are feeling the baby blues/PPD, it is still super important to seek professional help, and to find a community of others who understand what you are going through. However, if you find that breastfeeding does not work for you and that it is making you more stressed, then it may be more important to do what is good for your mental health, even if that is stopping breastfeeding.
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