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Depression and Breastfeeding Problems : What’s the Connection?

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album

Reviewed by Linda Bobroff, PhD, RD, LD/N, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida, and Heidi Radunovich, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

When you visit a gallery of Renaissance art, you’re guaranteed to see many paintings of Madonna and child. I’m always struck by the many tender depictions of Mary nursing her baby, showing artists’ high regard for this nurturing act.

Benefits…But Sometimes, Costs

Breastfeeding is highly beneficial for both infants and mothers, reducing infants’ risk of various medical problems and improving mothers’ lifetime health, too. However, this process does not always come easily, with some mothers experiencing pain and difficulty. Problems with nursing can be tough on the whole family. I know this all too well, as I had a hard time with both of my children due to low milk supply and my children’s tongue tie and high palates.  Though I stuck with it, there were times when I struggled and felt frustrated.

Links to Postpartum Depression?

In fact, some professionals have wondered if breastfeeding difficulties can contribute to postpartum depression. A 2011 study in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology looked at this question in over 2500 mothers who chose to breastfeed. In the first weeks after birth, mothers were asked to rate any pain and discomfort associated with nursing and to describe how much they liked or disliked breastfeeding. Then, when their children were two months old, the moms were assessed for depression.

On the whole, about 9% of mothers screened positive for postpartum depression–and there did seem to be a connection with nursing problems. Those women who had reported having “severe” pain with breastfeeding directly after birth were twice as likely to be depressed as others, while women who reported disliking breastfeeding were about one and a half times as likely to be depressed. Depressed women were also more likely to have stopped nursing altogether.

Better Support is Key

It’s difficult to know if nursing difficulties caused depression, or if women who are likely to have nursing problems are also more likely to become depressed. In either case, however, the study authors emphasize the importance of screening for depression in women who are having trouble with breastfeeding. Spouses, partners, and families may also want to be aware of this connection. With improved awareness and more support, we can better assist new mothers who experience these difficulties, and make the first months of new motherhood, always a time of great change and transition, a little bit easier.

(Photo credit: IMGP1686 by Celeste BurkeCC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Cropped.)

Further Reading

Womenshealth.gov: Breastfeeding

Healthcare.gov: Breastfeeding Benefits

KellyMom–Evidence-based breastfeeding and parenting

La Leche League

Reference:

Watkins, S., Meltzer-Brody, S., Zolnoun, D., & Stuebe, A. (2011). Early breastfeeding experiences and postpartum depression. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 118(2), 214-221.

(Originally published in a slightly different form as: Church, C. (2011).Breastfeeding problems associated with postpartum depression. [Radio broadcast episode]. Family Album Radio. Gainesville, FL:  University of Florida.)