Breastfeeding Problems Can Lead to Postpartum Depression

Mothers who experience difficulty breastfeeding may develop postpartum depression, but not every case is the same

Breastfeeding Problems Can Lead to Postpartum Depression

By Victoria Candland Published at December 19, 2017 Views 3,832 Comments 4

Breastfeeding just wasn’t going well for Kaity Garcia. Before her baby was born, she had this romantic, picturesque image of a drug-free, peaceful delivery and a baby that would latch perfectly and get all his sustenance from her abundant milk supply. But, despite her around-the-clock breast pumping and visits to lactation specialists, her son was only getting a fraction of the nutrition he needed from her breast milk, forcing her to resort to formula—a substance she swore she would never give to her baby. Kaity felt defeated, exhausted and depressed.

“I constantly second guessed myself and my abilities as a mother. In my darkest moments, I wondered if it was a mistake to have a baby in the first place,” Kaity wrote in a blog post on XO Jane. Later in her post she said, “I really felt that my inability to exclusively breastfeed my son was a complete personal failure that would affect him for the rest of his life. Every time he refused the breast and I had to give him formula, I was devastated.”

Depression from Breastfeeding

Like Kaity, mothers, especially new mothers, who experience breastfeeding problems are more prone to postpartum depression, and early breastfeeding problems can be a warning sign for the development of depression that can last months. But, not all women who don’t enjoy breastfeeding are doomed to develop postpartum depression.

According to scientific research, postpartum depression is more common in women who have breastfeeding problems in the first two weeks after delivery than mothers who don’t. In a 2011 study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, the authors found that women who experienced severe breast pain on the day of their child’s birth were twice as likely to be depressed compared to women who had no breast pain while nursing.

Other statistics are equally dramatic. Stephanie Watkins, one of the contributors of the study said, “We found that women who said they disliked breastfeeding were 42 percent more likely to experience postpartum depression at two months compared to women who liked breastfeeding.”

Role of Hormone Levels

Hormones may play a part in these breastfeeding problems and increased feelings of depression. Studies have suggested that women with breastfeeding problems and depression have a reduced amount of oxytocin, a “bonding” hormone that can initiate maternal instincts and connection between baby and mother and help facilitate breastfeeding.

Research has suggested that mothers who have breastfeeding issues and feelings of irritability, stress, and depression have lower amounts of oxytocin, whereas women who have higher levels of the hormone have lower scores on EPDS, which is a standard measure for depression. Some scientists say this medical phenomenon could be because mothers who have naturally low oxytocin levels will inherently have a harder time breastfeeding and feel more anxious and depressed, rather than breastfeeding problems being the cause of the depression.

Each Case Is Different

For other mothers experiencing postpartum depression, breastfeeding may be the one saving grace that makes them feel connected to their baby. The first approach most doctors take to treat mothers with postpartum depression is to prescribe them an antidepressant, which passes to the baby during nursing, forcing women to stop breastfeeding while on the medication. This medication regimen may be good for some women who have existing breastfeeding problems, but it’s not beneficial for everyone. Other treatments mothers could consider to combat postpartum depression are support groups, therapy and alternative supplements.

Alison Stuebe, MD, the main author of the study, maternal-fetal medicine physician, breastfeeding researcher, and professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, stresses the individuality of every breastfeeding case. “I have cared for women with postpartum depression who describe breastfeeding as the only thing that ties them to their baby. I’ve also cared for women who are struggling with milk production and spending all of their time trying to eke out a few more drops of breast milk, at the expense of their baby’s other needs.”

Seek Help

Mothers who are experiencing breastfeeding problems and consequentially postpartum depression should seek help rather than trying to suppress the emotions. Guilt pervades many cases of postpartum depression. “You have every reason to feel depressed, your hormones are going haywire, and it happens,” writer Amy Keyishian says on the mom-help website The Stir.

Alison says that mothers should not be ashamed that they are having breastfeeding problems and feelings of depression. “If they’re struggling with breastfeeding, they should seek help and tell their provider. If they don’t have joy in their life, if they wake up in the morning and think, ‘I just can’t do this another day’ — that’s a medical emergency.

“They shouldn’t just say, ‘I’m going to power through this and snap out of it.’ They should call their provider and say, ‘I just don’t feel right, I’m wondering if I could be depressed, can I come in and talk to you about it?’”

Breastfeeding problems do not a bad mother make. Seek help, don’t beat yourself up, and use the formula if you need to.

To learn more about postpartum depression:

Why am I Struggling with Postpartum Depression?
Fear of Childbirth May Predict Postpartum Depression
More Than Just the "Baby Blues"

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