For new mothers, a major decision is whether to breastfeed or not. What many mothers might not consider in making this decision, is how breastfeeding could impact mental health as well as physical health of both mother and infant.
August is National Breastfeeding Month, and this month also includes World Breastfeeding Week from the 1st to 7th of August. Experts share information regarding breastfeeding and mental health.
Although many mothers and health experts highly encourage breastfeeding and list its numerous benefits such as stress relief, other research suggests breastfeeding is not as beneficial as most people think.
Researchers at Norwegian University of Science and Technology examined other studies on breastfeeding, and conducted their own, and believe the only possible benefit of breastfeeding is that it might give infants a slight IQ boost, and even that is questionable.
Some women even argue against breastfeeding. Anastasia de Waal wrote an opinions piece in The Guardian suggesting that breastfeeding is not always the best choice, and in fact it might even be the worst choice for several reasons.
“The danger of a ‘breast is best’ campaign is that it can make mothers feel like they have failed their baby,” de Waal stated.
“Perhaps just weeks after their baby is born, an exhausted (and perhaps prone to post-natal depression) mother does not need an extra pressure. For some women, breastfeeding can be excruciating, and the feed not a bonding time but a period when the baby that keeps you up all night and feels like a monster sucking the life out of you. Establishing this kind of relationship with your baby is more likely to build up harmful resentment than a healthy nurturing instinct.”
Hanna Rosin, a mother of three, wrote an article in The Atlantic supporting a “case against breast-feeding.” By reading multiple scientific studies on the potential benefits of breastfeeding, she found that most results were “inconsistent.”
Although she believes breastfeeding is ideally the best option, she agrees with de Waal that there are disadvantages, including putting more responsibility and time restraints on the mother and creating an unequal relationship between the parents and infant.
However, other experts do believe there might be more of a beneficial mental health aspect to breastfeeding.
Dr. Stephen Davide Frausto, a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist at Tempe St. Luke’s Hospital, said in an email that there can be mental health benefits from breastfeeding for both the infant and mother.
“When breastfeeding, a hormone called prolactin is released by the mother, attributing to a sense of wellbeing and comfort towards the newborn,” Frausto said in an email.
“Breastfeeding can create a psychological bond that makes the baby feel secure and puts the mother at ease knowing she can provide for her child, now and forever.”
He said that it’s best to provide some breast milk for infants rather than only formula, and if mothers have difficulties breastfeeding, they can receive help from lactation specialists.
“Some mothers cannot produce enough milk for the child and may feel a sense of failure,” Frausto said. “Mothers need to remember that even some breast milk is better than none.”
For mothers who are taking antidepressants or other prescription drugs to help with mental health disorders, they should talk to a doctor before breastfeeding about reducing the amount of drugs they are on in order to prevent them being transferred to the infant, he said.
Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, a health psychologist and an international board certified lactation consultant, said in an email that breastfeeding can lead to long-term health benefits for mothers.
“These effects include less heart disease, lower rates of diabetes and metabolic syndrome, and lower rates of depression,” Kendall-Tackett said.
“You specifically see these effects because breastfeeding downregulates the stress response, which is related to not only depression, but a whole host of other health problems. Breastfeeding also helps mother get more and better sleep postpartum, which also leads to a number of health protections for moms.”
Kathryn Bereman-Skelly, a mental health therapist in Oregon, said in an email that she has five children and works with mostly breastfeeding moms as her specialty.
“In my experience breastfeeding does have an impact on a woman's mental health,” Bereman-Skelly said.
“Breastfeeding and caring for a newborn often have steep learning curves, which tax mental and physical resources, often to the point of overwhelm. Combine this with sleep deprivation, hormonal shifts, and you have a ‘perfect storm’ for postpartum depression.”