What’s the science on breastfeeding and mental health?

We know a lot about the positive impacts of breastfeeding on short- and long-term infant health. But how does it affect mom? Megan Yuen and Olivia Hall, two scientists at the University of Massachusetts, have released a new report in the Journal of Women’s Health on the relationship between breastfeeding and maternal mental health, and it looks like breastfeeding has a mostly positive impact with a notable exception.

First, the good news: breastfeeding decreases risk of postpartum depression symptoms.

Of 36 studies on the relationship between breastfeeding and maternal mental health, 29 found that mothers who breastfeed have fewer mental health symptoms. In fact, 28 studies found that breastfeeding was associated with a lower risk of postpartum depression symptoms.

On the other hand, if your breastfeeding experience poses challenges, it can increase risk of depression and anxiety.

Journal of Women’s Health Editor-in-Chief Susan G. Kornstein, MD explains, “To help clinicians personalize breastfeeding and mental health counseling, it is important to recognize that while breastfeeding is generally associated with improved maternal mental health, if can have negative mental health consequences if the mother experiences breastfeeding challenges or the experience does not meet her expectations.”

It seems like one of the biggest obstacle is our own expectations or, worse, comparing ourselves to other mothers or to some imaginary “ideal mother.” Mama, let’s be real with each other. Being a mom, in general, is hard work. It’s not as romantic as Mother’s Day cards make it out to be. Breastfeeding isn’t all cuddles. It can be difficult. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed and frustrated. If you’re just starting to breastfeed, keep these things in mind.

#1 Remember what you just did, mom.

Hey, lady. Please don’t forget that you just spent nine months making a whole other person. Your body is tired, including your brain and your heart. If you’re feeling tender and vulnerable right now, that’s normal. If everything, including breastfeeding, feels a little more difficult, it’s no wonder. Your body is recovering. Please be patient. Give yourself the time you’ve earned to recuperate without judgment.

#2 Set realistic expectations.

Here’s the truth. Breastfeeding can be a real challenge. Even though it seems like it should “come naturally,” it can be pretty difficult for new moms and their new babies to get the hang of it. However, most moms can successfully breastfeed. It’s mostly a matter of experimentation and practice. Expect that there will be some uncomfortable and even frustrating moments. Expect that you’ll also eventually have the sweet, memorable moment that you’re hoping for. Sometimes it just takes a while.

#3 Ask a professional lactation consultant for guidance.

Many insurance providers, including Tricare and many Aetna, BCBS, and Geisinger plans, cover up to six visits to a lactation consultant. If your insurance covers a lactation consultant, use that resource, mama! A professional will confirm what I’ve already told you (that it’s totally normal to not immediately ace breastfeeding) and offer some specific tips to make breastfeeding more enjoyable for you and your baby.

#4 Seek out a supportive community of mothers.

During the early stages, breastfeeding can take up a lot of time, keeping you stuck at home alone. That can take a toll on mental health. Many moms get depressed and begin to compare themselves unfavorable to “mothering norms,” which makes them feel even more alone. Whether you use an app like Peanut to connect with other moms, a Facebook group, or a weekly meetup at the park or a coffee shop, make time to let other mothers in your life. Having a community gives you a safe space to share your fears and concerns, and your mother friends will remind you that we’re all doing the best we can.

#5 Take time for yourself

Along the same lines, many mothers have talked to me about being “touched out,” and that’s a completely normal way to feel when you’re being touched all the time. Even though you love all the cuddles you get as a mom, you likely also need some time to be alone and enjoy not being completely responsible for another person’s care and nourishment. That’s nothing to be ashamed of or to feel badly about.

Take care of you, mama.

I founded Milk N Mamas baby after years of lobbying on behalf of mothers for insurance to cover breastfeeding equipment. I believe that breastfeeding is valuable for babies and their mothers in most cases. It offers many health benefits for baby and mom, and it offers lots of mom some mental health protection when they need it most. But if it’s not working for you, pumping is a viable option that will allow you to provide the nutritional benefit of breast milk. Get in touch to learn more.