breastfeeding moms decrease risk of depression

How does breastfeeding improve maternal mental health?

A more stressful world takes a toll on maternal mental health.

In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, global rates of anxiety and depression increased by 25%, according to a study by the World Health Organization. A new study suggests that postpartum depression during the pandemic was triple pre-pandemic levels while one in five mothers experienced major depressive symptoms. However, an estimated 15% to 25% of all new mothers experience post-partum depression.

“Even before COVID, we were seeing an increasing number of women with mood and anxiety disorders around the time of pregnancy, including postpartum depression,” said Vanessa Dalton, M.D., M.P.H., a senior author on both studies.

Many mothers are isolated during the final months of their pregnancy and the early months after their delivery. Frequently, they don’t have the support they need at home. Many are also under pressure to be both a nurturing mother and a full-time employee somewhere. Then, of course, there’s your changing hormones and body. It’s a recipe for mental strain, anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

Breastfeeding reduces inflammation and the risk of depression that comes with it.

Inflammation plays such a significant role in depression that one medical journal called it “an inflammatory disease.” Inflammation is a stress response, and as it increases, so does your risk of depression. An article in the International Breastfeeding Journal said, “[I]nflammation is not simply a risk factor; it is the risk factor that underlies all the others.

Breastfeeding plays a unique protective role in keeping inflammation levels, and therefore depression risk, low. Studies show that breastfeeding:

  • increases the effectiveness of the mothers’ immune system
  • reduces the perception of stress, depression, and anger, and
  • increases the perception of more positive life events than the controls.

Breastfeeding moms get more sleep.

In general, people with insomnia are ten times more likely to develop depression than people who get a good night’s sleep. That leaves new parents, and new mothers in particular, at a distinct risk of depression.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, research shows that breastfeeding mothers actually get more sleep than their formula-feeding friends – at least 30 extra minutes of sleep per night! That’s because when a mom breastfeeds, her body releases prolactin, which helps to induce sleep. This makes it easier for her to doze back off after a midnight feeding. Thirty minutes may not seem like much, but in at least one study, breastfeeding mothers reported they had more energy and a sense of well-being.

What do I do when exclusive breastfeeding isn’t an option?

Breastfeeding offers health benefits to babies and to moms, so we’re huge advocates. However, it’s not always possible to breastfeed exclusively. If you’re ready to add pumping to your routine, you still get most of the same benefits as when you’re breastfeeding, and your baby gets the best food source available. Plus, when you add pumping, you can let your partner take over some of those late night feedings, so you can maybe get a whole extra hour of sleep.