The World Health Organization recommends babies be exclusively breastfeed for 6 months and then for solids to be introduced while breastfeeding continues for 2 years and beyond. Indeed, breastfeeding is important for the health of mothers and their babies.
Research to date suggests there’s a complex link between breastfeeding difficulties and depression.
When breastfeeding is going well, it can help protect against depression by dampening the stress response.
However, the stress response can be up-regulated when breastfeeding difficulties are encountered.
Therefore, mothers experiencing breastfeeding difficulties need timely, empathetic, and knowledgeable support.
Because breastfeeding and mothers’ mental health are both important issues, trying to explore the relationship between breastfeeding difficulties and depression is also important, and so the research continues.
The Link Between Breastfeeding Cessation And Depression
A recent study of 1,258 Australian women found almost 95% started breastfeeding, but about 24% had ceased by 3 months and 40% by 6 months.
When looking at two groups of women at 1 and 2 months – those with depressive symptoms, and those without – there was no significant difference in the percentage of women breastfeeding. However, these two groups started to differ at 3 months, to the point where, at 6 months, 49% of women with depressive symptoms, and 61% without, were still breastfeeding.
So, what does this mean?
It could indicate that depression came on during the first 3 months and this led to breastfeeding cessation.
Or it could indicate that breastfeeding cessation between 2-3 months led to an increased risk of depression at 3 months.
According to the study’s lead author, Dr Hannah Woolhouse, “It is very difficult to determine whether the depressive symptoms or the breastfeeding difficulties came first. What we can say conclusively, based on our research, is that there is a strong and robust association between maternal depression at three months postpartum and the duration of breastfeeding over the first six months”.
So, what can health professionals supporting women in the perinatal period take from this research?
Appropriate Breastfeeding Support Is Important
It’s important for health professionals supporting women in the perinatal period to take heed of this research, and understand that early identification and treatment of depression might help improve breastfeeding duration rates.
In addition, timely, empathetic, and knowledgeable support for women who are experiencing breastfeeding difficulties might help reduce maternal depression.
Other research has found that positive support interactions early in the postpartum period appear to have a positive effect on maternal mental health. As Dr Woolhouse says, “Likewise, appropriate and compassionate support for women experiencing breastfeeding difficulties may have the added benefit of reducing maternal depression”.
Whenever possible, and when desired by the depressed mother, continued breastfeeding will also help protect her child.
Breastfeeding Protects Babies Of Depressed Mothers
Research compared four groups of mothers – depressed mothers who were breastfeeding or formula feeding, and non-depressed mothers who were breastfeeding or formula feeding. The babies of depressed, breastfeeding mothers had normal EEG (brain wave) patterns, comparable to those of babies of non-depressed mothers. The babies of depressed, formula-feeding mothers, however, had abnormal EEG patterns.
The probable reason for these EEG differences is that breastfeeding helps mothers remain very responsive to their babies. Breastfeeding encourages depressed mothers to continue to look at, touch, and make eye contact with their babies; they will do this more than depressed mothers who are not breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding, therefore, more likely helps protect babies from the potential harmful effects of their mothers’ depression.
So, how can mothers experiencing breastfeeding difficulties receive the best support?
It Takes A Village To Raise A Child
Supporting women in the perinatal period is not the role of one person. Indeed, it takes a village to raise a child. Partners play an important role, as do friends, family and health professionals. Peer to peer support from organisations such as the Australian Breastfeeding Association or La Leche League can help immensely.
It’s important to remember that International Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLCs) are the most qualified breastfeeding experts available. IBCLCs have extensive breastfeeding training, and undergo ongoing testing to maintain their certification. So, if you’re experiencing breastfeeding difficulties, be sure to contact an IBCLC immediately.
With this in mind, perhaps it’s well and truly time for IBCLCs visits to be covered by Medicare, so that more women can benefit from their assistance. The 2007 Parliamentary Inquiry into Breastfeeding actually made this one of its recommendations. That’s almost 10 years ago!
If you are worried you might be experiencing depression, contact your doctor or child health nurse without delay.
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