There seems to be a significant connection between breastfeeding and postpartum depression.
Many women who have been diagnosed with postpartum depression also report trouble breastfeeding. Their struggles include latching problems, not producing enough breast milk, or an overall aversion to breastfeeding in general. With this being such a common concern, it seems there must be a connection between breastfeeding and postpartum depression.
A connection between breastfeeding and postpartum depression is not an easy one to decipher, however. It’s likely caused by a number of different factors, both physical and psychological. And the fact that postpartum depression also affects women who have no issues breastfeeding makes it even more complicated to figure out.
Let’s dig deeper into the connection between breastfeeding and postpartum depression.
The “Unnaturalness” of Breastfeeding
The only thing that’s natural about breastfeeding is that it feels so completely unnatural. It may have been natural hundreds of years ago, when people lived more closely among animals and watched them raise their young. In the days when daily life consisted of fetching well water and hunting for food, breastfeeding was the norm. But modern civilization has taken the “naturalness” out of breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding exposes a woman, making her feel vulnerable and embarrassed. Most women have never walked around bare-breasted before. And now, suddenly, other people are inspecting and staring at her breasts, even grabbing them like hamburgers. Plus, there’s the added feature of getting used to another human being sucking away on them in a completely asexual way.
But instead of admitting that breastfeeding feels unnatural, the message mothers are given about breastfeeding is that it’s what’s best for her baby, that it’s completely natural and instinctual, and that if she’s doing it right, it shouldn’t hurt. Perhaps the connection between breastfeeding and postpartum depression stems from the gross misinformation that new mothers are given.
some truths about breastfeeding:
It’s painful. Yes, even when you’ve got a proper latch, it can still hurt.
It doesn’t happen instinctively. Babies will root around, looking for a nipple, but the majority of them don’t know what the heck they’re doing.
It’s embarrassing. And others will make you feel guilty for being embarrassed and say insensitive things like “we’ve seen it all before.”
It’s annoying. Newborns eat often and can suck for a long time. Having to feed a baby on demand means you barely have time to do anything else, let’s not even talk about pumping.
It gets easier? Yeah, sure, once you get the latch figured out, it might seem like things are going smoothly. Until you have a 6 month old who likes to shove their feet in your mouth, pull your hair and scratch your chest while they nurse.
The Guilt of Not Breastfeeding
Despite all of this, the majority of mothers will attempt to breastfeed their child because “breast is best” and what kind of mother would they be if they didn’t at least try to give their child the best? This overwhelming pressure on mothers most definitely plays a part in the connection between breastfeeding and postpartum depression.
Contrary to (un)popular belief, mothers don’t just give up breastfeeding because it’s too hard. They usually seek help from a professional, try supplements to increase their supply, pump day and night and do everything else in their power, which often causes a severe amount of stress, anxiety and feelings of worthlessness.
A mother who is unable to breastfeed, regardless of the reason, will feel guilty for not doing it, despite the fact that it is not her fault. She may even be embarrassed to admit to other mothers that she is not breastfeeding for fear of being judged.
Stress Inhibits Breastfeeding
All of these misconceptions about breastfeeding can set a new mother up for failure. Instead of experiencing something she hoped would be beautiful and natural, she feels frustrated and stressed out. Stress then inhibits breast milk production, and not producing enough breast milk stresses a mother out even more. So it becomes nothing but a vicious cycle.
We know that stress can cause all kinds of symptoms in our bodies, both mentally and physically. Stress leads to anxiety, insomnia, poor eating habits, weight gain or loss, neck and back pain, headaches, depression and more. So it’s no wonder that stress is the primary culprit in the connection between breastfeeding and postpartum depression.
Breastfeeding in Public
Breastfeeding in public may be legal, but that doesn’t make it any less awkward for a new mother who is already feeling exposed and vulnerable. We’ve all heard the horror stories of women being shamed for breastfeeding in public. While we applaud those who do stand up for themselves, that level of courage is not in all of us.
Even if we are never actually confronted about public breastfeeding, we often take additional measures to prevent it from making those around us uncomfortable. This comes at the cost of our own comfort, and that of our baby, usually resulting in an unsuccessful public breastfeeding experience. Therefore, the mere thought of having to breastfeed a screaming, hungry baby in a public place can cause high levels of stress and anxiety.
A new mother struggling to breastfeed may avoid spending time outside of the house for this reason. Eventually, this feeling of being trapped in the house can have an effect on a mother’s mental health and the longer it persists, the more dangerous it becomes.
Breastfeeding with D-MER
If you’re not familiar with the breastfeeding condition known as D-MER (Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex) you can read about in this post. D-MER can cause a mother to have an overall aversion to breastfeeding and develop negative thoughts and feelings towards it. While D-MER is a physiological response as opposed to a psychological one, I believe that it can play a part in the connection between breastfeeding and postpartum depression.
For a mother with undiagnosed D-MER, she may associate extremely negative thoughts and feelings towards breastfeeding, which could transfer over into negative thoughts towards herself or her baby. This constant weight of negativity creates an environment where mental illness thrives.
It’s important for mothers who have negative feelings while breastfeeding to speak up about them and seek help. It could be D-MER or it could be postpartum depression. Either way, help and information are available.
Ultimately, a lot of different things can affect a breastfeeding mother and prevent her from being successful at it. If breastfeeding is causing you to feel stressed, anxious, vulnerable, embarrassed, ashamed or creating a negative experience altogether, then it’s worth weighing the risks and benefits. While there are so many wonderful benefits of breastfeeding for babies and mothers, forcing yourself to breastfeed at the cost of your mental health is not worth it.