Maternal Mental Health and Breastfeeding: What You Need To Know

mum breastfeeding newborn baby

Breastfeeding and maternal mental health is a complex matter. How breastfeeding affects an individual will be influenced by things such as physical and hormonal changes within the body, personal beliefs and cultural customs.

Some parents enter parenthood with a strong desire to exclusively breastfeed their baby, whereas other parents decide that formula is their preferred choice, and some opt for a mixture of the two methods.

Establishing A Breastfeeding Routine

How well breastfeeding is (or isn't) established after birth can have a huge impact on maternal mental health. A parent who has their heart set on breastfeeding their baby, but is unable to do so because of lack of support, breastfeeding issues (read our article on common breastfeeding articles here) etc., can experience huge feelings of failure, loss and grief for the parenting journey they so desired.

Parents who attempt to breastfeed but struggle to overcome the hurdles of early breastfeeding and revert to formula may experience feelings of inadequacy at a vulnerable time in their post-partum life.

Sometimes, a lack of education about the norms of breastfeeding can lead to mothers feeling like they are failing when they are not. For example, a parent may attempt to express their milk using a breast pump, only to find that they are unable to get more than a drop or only small amounts.

They may immediately assume that this is all their baby manages to get – BUT – breasts work differently for babies!

Your baby will almost always manage to get more than a breast pump. I had this very issue myself. With a single pump, I couldn’t get ANYTHING at all. With a double electric pump, I could get an ounce or maybe two IF I looked at my baby while pumping.

If I put a milk catcher in my bra on one side while feeding my baby from the opposite side, I’d usually catch more through natural letdown than I could pump…and then there was still milk left in there for my baby to feed from that side afterwards!

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Your Body and Mind

The act of breastfeeding promotes hormonal processes that induce the release of oxytocin, an important hormone related to maternal bonding.

Seeing (and smelling) your baby at the breast triggers this response within your brain and body. Oxytocin is often referred to as one of the ‘happy’ chemicals and can help to produce feelings of calm and peace within the body.

Breastfeeding also supports the regulation of sleep patterns for both mother and infant – the milk you produce at night time actually contains hormones to help your baby to feel sleepy and fall asleep!

For these reasons, even though parents suffering from depression and anxiety during the perinatal period might be less likely to initiate or maintain breastfeeding, breastfeeding does have a positive effect on depressive and/or anxiety-related symptoms during this time.

I struggled with PND and anxiety after the birth of my second child. The first thing the consultant I was under at the hospital asked me was whether I was breastfeeding. I told her that yes, I was, and she replied, “Good. Do not stop. The chemicals and hormones you produce when breastfeeding will help you, and if you stop suddenly and these hormones decline, it may make you feel worse.”

Of course, on the flip side, breastfeeding is physically demanding, can be painful and requires good nutrition, hydration and rest. Having to get up in the night to feed a baby can take its toll if you can’t share this task.

However, it is quicker and easier to feed a baby from the breast than it is to get up and prepare bottles and spend time sterilising and cleaning alongside all of the other jobs as a parent, so it really does depend on your individual set-up and the level of support available.

In conclusion, where breastfeeding improves maternal mental health, it should be encouraged and supported.

When breastfeeding negatively affects the nursing parent, either due to external pressures, psychiatric symptoms or lack of support – it is so important that parents are not  left feeling guilty if they choose to seek alternative forms of feeding. 

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