As research continues to confirm that breastfeeding significantly reduces the risk that new mothers will experience postpartum depression, the Maternal and Child Health Journal report looked at information from more than 14,000 mothers and has some surprising information to add.
To better understand the connection between breastfeeding and PPD researchers looked at the mothers’ expectations for infant feeding in addition to their feeding choices after birth. One of the first of its kind to include such data the analysis found that, while women who expected to breastfeed and were able to do so successfully had a much lower risk for depression, those women who were unable to breastfeed but had plans to nurse their babies after birth actually had a higher likelihood of PPD.
For mothers who were not depressed during pregnancy, the lowest risk of PPD was found among women who had planned to breastfeed, and who had actually breastfed their babies, while the highest risk was found among women who had planned to breastfeed and had not gone on to breastfeed. We conclude that the effect of breastfeeding on maternal depression is extremely heterogeneous, being mediated both by breastfeeding intentions during pregnancy and by mothers’ mental health during pregnancy. Our results underline the importance of providing expert breastfeeding support to women who want to breastfeed; but also, of providing compassionate support for women who had intended to breastfeed, but who find themselves unable to.
The study also turned up another unexpected result.
Interestingly, among the group of mothers who had not planned to breastfeed, the risk of depression was higher among women who went on to breastfeed.
However, the study does state that “for previously depressed mothers, there may also be a protective effect from breastfeeding when mothers had not planned to breastfeed.”
It is also interesting to note that the study analyzed data from the Avon Longitudinal Survey of Parents and Children from the early 1990s in Bristol, England — raising the question of whether the results, which weighed maternal expectations so heavily, would have been different if more recent and geographically diverse data had been used.
Our results underline the importance of providing expert breastfeeding support to women who want to breastfeed; but also, of providing compassionate support for women who had intended to breastfeed, but who find themselves unable to.
An important takeaway of the research in this article is that it is so very important to support postpartum mothers, regardless of their breastfeeding or not. Whether they want to breastfeed and they can’t, or they don’t necessarily plan to breastfeed but they do and may not be as informed as if they’d planned, it’s clear that postpartum support for mothers is imperative.
If we’re looking to increase breastfeeding rates, we also need to know how postpartum depression can affect those rates. We don’t just need to encourage women; we need to educate them and follow up with them postpartum, and we need to support them in what they need.
Yes. We’d love every mother to breastfeed, and every baby to benefit from their mother’s milk. But it’s not always feasible for that to happen, and that can leave mothers guilt-ridden and shamed. Follow-up is key, and support can make all the difference in postpartum rates.
Photo: Syda Productions/Shutterstock