Guest Post by Autumn Cavender
Breastfeeding and mental health is a topic that so often gets overlooked.
Postpartum Depression is a debilitating disorder that steals the joy of those early months with a new baby. It is a real disorder to be taken very seriously.
But can breastfeeding help lower the risk of postpartum depression?
Breastfeeding and Mental Health
Mental health problems affect men and women differently.
For example, major depression is more prevalent among women. For some women, one of the best treatments for depression may be to breastfeed their babies.
In 2010, the global prevalence of major depression was 5.5 percent among women and 3.2 percent among men—a 1.7 percent difference.
There are also mental health disorders that are more common to women than men. These mental health conditions include anxiety or depression.
Women also experience unique mental disorders such as premenstrual dysphoric disorder, perinatal depression, and perimenopause-related depression.
Women, too, are much more vulnerable to depression after giving birth and starting to care for a newborn, with one in nine experiencing postpartum depression symptoms.
A woman’s mind and body undergo a lot of changes during and after pregnancy.
When a woman is pregnant, the female hormones—estrogen and progesterone—are at their highest levels. However, when she gives birth, the levels quickly drop which often triggers postpartum depression symptoms.
Aside from female hormones, thyroid hormones also drop after the woman gives birth. These hormones regulate the storage of energy from food that’s why when it has low levels, it can cause depression symptoms.
The Baby Blues vs Postpartum Depression
But women need to know when it is depression or just “baby blues.”
After giving birth (postpartum), some women experience the so-called “baby blues” that last for about three to five days. It is highlighted by a feeling of emptiness or sadness.
However, when such feelings do not go away after two weeks, the woman might be experiencing postpartum depression.
This is a serious mental health disorder that affects the woman’s brain, her behavior, and her physical health. A mother may not be able to take care of the newborn, especially breastfeed the child when she has symptoms of depression.
A woman with depression is also likely to abuse substances that can lead to a dual diagnosis: a mental illness and a full-on addiction.
Women who are using drugs should not breastfeed unless their doctor gives the OK.
Postpartum depression symptoms include:
- Low energy
- Lack of focus
- Loss in concentration
The Link Between Breastfeeding and Mental Health
The exhaustion from giving birth and the need to take care of her child brings about a roller coaster of emotions to a mother. Among the roles of the mother that makes an impact on her mental health is breastfeeding.
While breastfeeding sometimes has been viewed as an added pressure to a mother who has just undergone the stress and trauma of the birth experience, evidence shows that breastfeeding reduces postnatal depression.
A 2014 study in the Maternal and Child Health journal showed that women who breastfed their babies have a lower risk of postpartum depression compared to those who did not breastfeed.
The study considered more than 10,000 mothers.
According to the study, women who planned to breastfeed and were actually able to breastfeed their children were 50 percent less likely to be depressed.
It also found that mothers who planned to breastfeed but were not able to breastfeed were twice as likely to experience depression.
The study assessed the women’s pre-existing mental health condition and measured maternal depression using the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale.
This is regarded as one of the few studies which considered the women’s previous mental health condition.
How Breastfeeding Benefits Mothers’ Mental Health
There are several elements of breastfeeding that have been found to be beneficial for both the mother and the newborn.
One is the production of the hormones responsible for lactation: oxytocin and prolactin.
Oxytocin, also known as the love hormone, is released during labor and breastfeeding.
This hormone has a natural calming effect on women and even protects mothers from stress. It enhances the feelings related to affection between the newborn and the mother. It also promotes bonding.
Meanwhile, prolactin aids in protecting breastfeeding mothers against depression is responsible for the production of milk and stimulates the growth of mammary tissue.
However, during pregnancy, the action of prolactin is blocked by progesterone and estrogen.
Only after delivery will the levels of progesterone and estrogen drop, unblocking the prolactin to aid in milk secretion.
Prolactin also plays a role in regulating stress responses and regulates behaviors tied to anxiety and depression.
Both oxytocin and prolactin help the mother’s body reduce the inflammatory responses linked with depression.
Most importantly, the calming effects of breastfeeding help the mothers get more sleep than those who sometimes also formula-feed or those who do not breastfeed at all. More sleep helps women to recover and feel better.
The Importance of Breastfeeding for Children
The benefits that children get from breast milk is also helpful to mothers, in general. The World Health Organization recommends that children should be breastfed exclusively for the first six months of life due to the many benefits.
According to studies, babies who are breastfed exclusively:
- Have a lower risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the leading cause of death among children from the first month up to the first year of life.
- Lower risk of asthma, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
- Are more healthy because of the antibodies in breast milk protect the child from sickness.
Aside from the benefits to the baby’s physical health, breast milk is also good for the baby’s mental health.
A study showed that breastfeeding for one year helps the child to have better mental health results until the age of 14. This is based on the security that the baby gets from his attachment to his mother, who must respond to his needs consistently.
The benefits of breastfeeding are cumulative, so the longer a baby breastfeeds, the more benefits it will get.
Supporting Breastfeeding Mothers
Breastfeeding offers a lot of benefits to mothers and their children, however, it is not easy.
Women, therefore, need to have support to overcome the challenges of breastfeeding. According to the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, women should not only be encouraged to breastfeed but also be provided with the support needed to succeed.
Article by Autumn Cavender
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