Breastfeeding can be a special, even magical, experience between a mother and child, but what happens when lactation challenges lead to feelings of guilt, sadness, and even depression?
LinnieLou spoke with mental health and lactation experts as well as an experienced mom to get their takes on breastfeeding, mental health, and when to seek help.
Breastfeeding: A Mom’s Perspective
Nicole Philips is a mom of three boys and had vastly different nursing experiences with each of them.
“My breastfeeding journey was like riding a roller-coaster,” she said.
With her first baby, she couldn’t produce enough milk and asked herself, “What is wrong with me?” before she ultimately decided to switch to formula.
“I could make my body do anything I wanted it to do. I was an athlete! I could go run a half-marathon off the couch but couldn’t feed my baby.”
With her second, she still struggled but was more prepared. “While I wasn’t as miserable as my first go, I still felt like a disappointment,” she said. “I still couldn’t do it. But I knew the signs and I knew I had to make a decision that was right for me and my family.”
But by baby number 3, Nicole was able to exclusively breastfeed for a year. She even donated a cooler of breastmilk to moms in need.
“My boys are now 8, 6 and 3. They are all smart, athletic, loving, creative and perfect in my eyes. You can’t tell who had breast milk and who didn’t,” she said.
Breastfeeding and Mental Health
How, exactly, can breastfeeding impact a mom’s mental health?
For starters, it can positively impact mood and sleep, said
Summer is a Kansas City-based International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) with more than 10 years of experience helping moms find joy in pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, and pregnancy through her YouTube Channel, Done Naturally.
“Breastfeeding surges a mother’s hormones of prolactin and oxytocin. These lactation hormones are little helpers for a mother’s mental well-being–particularly oxytocin,” Summer said.
According to Psychology Today, oxytocin plays a role in maternal attachment to an infant as well as milk release and is also an antidote to depressive feelings.
“Time and time again it has been proven that breastfeeding mothers experience a more restful sleep, more protection from postpartum depression, less anxiety, and reduced stress,” Summer said.
Related: The Effect of Feeding Method on Sleep Duration, Maternal Well-being, and Postpartum Depression
Breastfeeding and Depression, Anxiety
On the flip side, sometimes the struggles that can accompany breastfeeding can lead to postpartum depression and anxiety, said Megan Baldwin– a social health coach and licensed master-level social worker or LMSW based in Southwest Georgia.
Megan has helped postpartum mothers who experienced the new demands that motherhood often brings, and said the pressure to breastfeed can be overwhelming.
“Every mom, to some extent, wants what is best for her baby, and often the message that ‘breast is best’ can have some serious implications for new moms,” she said.
Megan said she is “super pro-nursing,” but believes that sometimes the messaging surrounding breastfeeding can be harmful.
“While it does send a good message, the ‘breast is best’ message can be shame-inducing to mothers who experience physical difficulties or trouble producing enough milk,” she said. “I have worked with many mothers who had to give up their hopes of nursing due to physical complications, and the emotional baggage to unpack with that is heavy.”
Lactation Education is Key
Megan said the all-or-nothing approach to nursing isn’t helpful.
“I believe a lot of women receive education from one side of the spectrum or another–breast versus bottle–and there isn’t much discussion about the in-between, the ‘what ifs’ and especially any complications that can arise,” she said.
Denise Stroud is an IBCLC based in Central Georgia and is the co-owner of Lactation Care of Macon.
She said that education can also alleviate not only the challenges associated with breastfeeding but also feelings of guilt and shame.
“Finding solutions to the breastfeeding issues [the mom] is having can make her feel competent and change her outlook completely,” Denise said. “Simply telling a woman she can ‘just give formula’ is not solving her breastfeeding problem.”
When to Seek Help
Knowing when to ask for help is important throughout parenthood, but especially when it comes to breastfeeding and mental health.
“If anyone is struggling with something, they need to reach out to other mothers and supportive health care providers, and likely one of those needs to be an IBCLC,” Summer said.
She often works with moms who express guilt if they struggle with nursing. Her advice? Rename that feeling to “grief.”
“Guilt is when we feel we have done something wrong. Guilt is not when we have tried everything, tried our best, or been guided down a wrong path by uneducated healthcare professionals. Most often what these women feel is grief,” Summer said.
When To Get Help from a Lactation Consultant
“Ideally, all moms would have access to lactation help prenatally, which could help avoid many feeding problems after birth,” Denise said. “We encourage clients to take a breastfeeding class before the baby arrives. We educate them on circumstances and conditions that may impact their ability to breastfeed.”
Denise said that postpartum, a mom should seek help from an IBCLC if:
- She’s experienced pain (during or after feeds)
- Her baby seems unhappy while feeding
- Her baby won’t settle between feedings
- Her baby doesn’t have the appropriate number of wet and dirty diapers
- Her baby isn’t gaining weight at an acceptable rate
“As with any professional, look for someone who will listen and hear you! I often spend half an hour just listening to a family’s story before I do anything else, and I frequently hear that I’m the first one who has done so.”
Denise also said she recommends women reach out simply for support.
“Honestly, even if she needs reassurance, we want her to call or at the least reach out to a community support group like Breastfeeding USA or La Leche League,” she said. “Mothers need support, whether it comes from family, friends, health care providers, or community!”
When to Reach Out to a Mental Health Professional
Megan said women should always talk to a counselor if they are feeling hopeless or having any thoughts of hurting themselves or someone else.
But she believes all moms can benefit from therapy.
“I think all moms should experience some type of therapy or counseling after giving birth,” she said. “There are so many things women need to talk about and need support after becoming moms.”
Also, seek help if you notice any of these symptoms:
- Major changes in personality
- Difficulty with worrying
- Excessive crying
- Major mood swings
- Studies indicate that breastfeeding mothers experience a more restful sleep, protection from postpartum depression, less anxiety, and reduced stress.
- Sometimes, the struggles that can accompany breastfeeding can lead to postpartum depression and anxiety.
- Lactation education can alleviate the challenges associated with breastfeeding and the feelings of guilt and shame associated with nursing struggles.
- Prenatal access to lactation education could help avoid many feeding problems after birth.
- Reach out to an ICLC if you experience pain before or after nursing, or if your baby is not thriving.
- Seek help from a mental health counselor if you feel hopeless or have thoughts of hurting yourself or others.
After nursing three kids, Nicole has one piece of advice for new moms: “You have to make the decision that makes you the best mom to baby and the best person for yourself,” she said. You are not a failure. Your baby needs you to love them and feed them. Breathe, soak up the snuggles, and know you are a rockstar mom!”
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The information provided in this blog post is not intended to serve as medical advice. Always talk to your child’s pediatrician before making a decision about his/her nutrition needs.