Breastfeeding and post-partum depression: A possible cure, a possible cause
© 2014 Roy Benaroch, MD
An August, 2014 British study comes to two seemingly opposite conclusions: in some women, breastfeeding can protect against depression; while in other women breastfeeding seems to increase the risk of depression. It all depends on what mom’s intentions had been.
The study is complicated, and has a lot of tables—but they’ve kindly made it open-access, so you can read it yourself in detail (click the Download PDF button after the link, above.) Briefly, researchers looked at about 14,000 births, and tracked measures of mental health during pregnancy and periodically afterwards. They also tracked whether women tried or didn’t try to breastfeed, and how long breastfeeding continued. And, they kept track of what women had said their intentions to breastfeed had been prior to delivery. Results were corrected for things like socioeconomic factors and the health of the baby, since we know those have a big effect on the risk of post-partum depression.
The women who didn’t intend to breastfeed, and didn’t end up breastfeeding, were used as the comparison group, and the relative risks of post-partum depression were determined. What they found was fascinating:
Among women who intended to breastfeed, and who did in fact successfully breast feed, the risk of depression was cut in half. This effect was strongest for longer-duration nursing. The authors postulate that the beneficial effect of nursing in this group was conveyed by hormonal factors released during nursing.
Unfortunately, those positive hormonal factors were not seen in all women. Among women who had planned to breastfeed, but were in fact unable to nurse sucessfully, the risk of depression more than doubled. Most women who try to nurse find nursing a successful experience, but women who don’t meet their own expectations seem especially vulnerable to depression.
And: among women who didn’t plan to breastfeed, but did in fact end up breastfeeding anyway, the risk of depression was also increased. Perhaps these women, who hadn’t wanted or planned to nurse, felt bullied or coerced into nursing?
The obstetric and pediatric communities are fully in support of breastfeeding, which offers medical and psychological advantages to most women and their babies. But we need to acknowledge that nursing can be difficult, and that women who don’t nurse are still capable, good moms—they don’t need scorn or dirty looks when they use baby formula. It’s a shame that moms who are providing love, nurturing, and good nutrition though a bottle may be at higher risk of depression. We can do better than this.