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.
Many women with postpartum depression report struggling to breastfeed, or at least feeling that extra pressure to do so.
It’s hard to know for certain whether breastfeeding problems cause postpartum depression symptoms or if symptoms of postpartum depression are making it difficult to breastfeed. It could be a combination of both.
Either way, breastfeeding takes some work. For a mother with postpartum depression, it’s just another aspect of motherhood that can contribute to more stress, added pressure, and self-doubt.
Here are some tips for mothers who are, or who might be, concerned about breastfeeding with postpartum depression.
Do Your Research
Don’t expect breastfeeding to come naturally to you and baby. Sometimes it does, but don’t expect it to. Breastfeeding may have come naturally to our ancestors hundreds of years ago when life was simpler, but if we want to be successful at it now, then we need to do some research.
The best time to do that research is while still pregnant, since the first few days of breastfeeding are the toughest. If you’ve enrolled in a birthing class, it’s likely they will cover breastfeeding as well. Don’t be afraid to ask as many questions as you can think of and take detailed notes. You never know which aspect of breastfeeding you might struggle with.
Being prepared for any breastfeeding setbacks can help you handle problems better if you end up suffering from postpartum depression.
If you’re already breastfeeding with postpartum depression, it’s never too late to research ways to improve your experience. There are plenty of resources available to help you.
A postpartum doula is a great option to consider if you’re worried about breastfeeding. They are trained to help mothers breastfeed successfully and can help you get enough rest and proper nutrition after giving birth, which is important for milk production.
Milkology – an online breastfeeding class that offers tons of information for all the different stages of breastfeeding.
Mom Smart Not Hard – this site has some really specific breastfeeding articles. I also recommend taking their Free 5 Day Breastfeeding Course and downloading the Breastfeeding Handbook to use as a reference when you’re offline.
KellyMom – the ultimate online breastfeeding resource. You can find articles about basically every single breastfeeding situation and/or question you could possibly have.
ABCKidsinc– a great collection of articles about all things breastfeeding. Includes common questions about health, diet, medications and products.
The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding – This book from the La Leche League is a breastfeeding bestseller for a reason. You can read it while pregnant and keep it on hand as a quick resource when and if situations arise.
For more resources, check out this post from The Merry Momma – An Epic List of Breastfeeding Tips and Resources
Learn About D-MER
Also known as Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex. D-MER is a newer breastfeeding condition that often gets confused as a symptom of postpartum depression. It is characterized by feelings of anxiety, sadness, panic, dread or loneliness that are brought on during letdown.
It is important to note that D-MER is NOT a symptom of postpartum depression, although it is triggered by a change in hormone levels. The “dysphoric” state that it causes is purely a physiological response to the sudden drop in dopamine levels required to increase milk-producing prolactin. In other words – a chemical imbalance.
Women with D-MER can also suffer from postpartum depression, which can add to the confusion and increase aversion to breastfeeding. Simply recognizing the unpleasant feelings as a physiological response, as opposed to a psychological condition, can make a huge difference.
Start Off Right
There is one epic moment after you have a baby that opens the door for breastfeeding success. What you do in this moment will set the pace for your breastfeeding journey. I’m talking about when your milk comes in.
Up until your milk comes in, baby has just been “suckling” and they haven’t really been “feeding” on much other than colustrum (still super important, though). And then one morning, you wake up with boulders on your chest, pain up to your armpits and a soaked t-shirt and have more milk than you know what to do with.
The most important things to focus on when your milk comes in are:
It will be difficult to latch a baby onto an extremely full breast. The nipple can flatten or invert, and squeezing the breast to get it into baby’s mouth can be incredibly painful. Using breast shells was a lifesaver for me during engorgement.
With extremely full breasts, there is a lot of watery fore milk at the front, and the rich, fattier hind milk at the back of the breast. You want to make sure that baby is getting enough of the fattier hind milk before they get full. Otherwise, you can end up with greenish poops and red bums, along with other problems. The breast compression technique is the best way to ensure baby is getting the good stuff.
Clogged Milk Ducts
The name says it all and the last thing you want to end up with is a swollen, red clogged milk duct. If left untreated, it can lead to mastitis. Thankfully there are lots of easy remedies to help loosen up a blocked duct.
Regulating Milk Supply
It might be tempting to pump out all that extra milk, but the best thing you can do is just feed, feed, feed. Baby may go through a cluster feeding phase when your milk comes in so just lay in bed and feed baby all day long if you need to. Feeding on demand will help to regulate your milk supply so that your body will learn to produce exactly the right amount of milk for your baby’s needs.
Once you have an adequate supply of milk, you should start experimenting with different nursing positions. A football hold is great for managing those XL sized engorged breasts. Lying back can be helpful if you have a forceful letdown. Side-Lying is always a popular option for night feedings or to get through cluster feeding sessions. You can even try nursing with baby in a baby carrier.
[Related Reading: The Ultimate Guide to Breastfeeding Positions]
Reduce Stress While Nursing
Stress is the number one killer of a good milk supply. Stressing out about whether or not you’re producing enough milk is the last thing you should do.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of postpartum depression or anxiety and feel like it is impacting your milk supply, try to find ways to calm yourself down during feedings.
For more advice on handling and reducing stress, you can find a variety of articles on Better Help – https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/stress/
Listen to music – put on your favorite playlist.
Aromatherapy – diffuse some essential oils, check out the mood collection from Rocky Mountain Oils.
Practice Deep Breathing – yoga and meditation can help you to clear your mind completely. Try to use slow, deep breaths while you feed baby.
Nurse while in the bath – nursing your baby (or pumping) while sitting in a warm bath can help your body and mind relax enough to let the milk flow effortlessly.
Watch TV – distract yourself with a good show or movie.
Read a Book or Magazine – or use an e-reader or tablet.
Look at old pictures – Make an album filled with pictures of happier times and loved ones. (I love these customizable photo albums from Mixbook)
Get Comfortable – find the most comfortable spot in your home to nurse baby and make sure everything you need are within arms reach. If you’re out in public, do whatever makes you most comfortable – whether it’s nursing with or without a nursing cover.
Cry it Out – crying is a way to release stress and built-up tension, not always a sign of despair.
Support vs. Pressure
Women with postpartum depression are extra sensitive to criticism, because they already feel like failures themselves. They often mistake breastfeeding support as pressure to breastfeed. I have heard many women with postpartum depression say they felt they would let their partner down if they could not breastfeed.
The truth is, your partner likely doesn’t care as much about breastfeeding as you do. They want what’s best for the baby, and if they’ve done as much research as you have, they also feel the pressure for breastfeeding to succeed. But they don’t feel the emotional urge like you do. They don’t understand what a total body experience it is.
What they do care about most, is you. They don’t want you to be miserable and in pain simply to breastfeeding. They will never think of you as a failure for not being able to breastfeed.
If they truly support you, then they will stand by you no matter what decision you make. And if your partner’s opinions about breastfeeding are causing you unwanted stress, it’s important to tell them, because they may not realize how much it’s affecting you.
Treatment Options While Breastfeeding
Talk to your doctor about your treatment options. I wasn’t given the option to take anti-depressants while I was breastfeeding, but I’ve heard that there are several safe options now. Prescription anti-depressants are not the only option, either.
Therapy is a great option for breastfeeding with postpartum depression. There are different types of therapy available, including cognitive behavior therapy, support groups or couples therapy.
There are several different herbs, supplements, vitamins and minerals that have been known to improve symptoms of depression.
Acupuncture has also been known to help with symptoms of postpartum depression, but make sure to indicate that you are also breastfeeding.
Don’t feel like treatment is out of the question for you if you are breastfeeding with postpartum depression, it’s important to know all your options.
Giving Up IS An Option
Choosing to stop breastfeeding will NOT make you a bad mother. Yes, we know that breast is best, and that there are so many benefits to breastfeeding. But at what cost?
When we weigh out the risks vs. the benefits, your mental health is one hundred times more important than the benefits of breastfeeding.
There are so many advanced options for formula feeding that your baby will never be at a disadvantage. In fact, they’ll grow up into junk food addicts just like every other kid. One day, you will watch your toddler eat dirt in the backyard and wonder why you ever stressed out about breastfeeding.
It’s alright to feel guilty for not breastfeeding, but there are so many other ways to bond with, and provide for, your baby. You will only be able to do those things if you focus on your mental health so that you can be there for them completely.
My own personal experience of breastfeeding with postpartum depression was actually a pleasant one. Knowing that my daughter needed me for her survival was what kept me going. As much as I despised doing it at the time, especially the night time feedings, I realize now that it’s what saved me from detaching from her completely.
No matter what your experience is like, or what choices you make for your baby, remember that your mental health and physical well-being are just as important as theirs.