Mothers who want to breastfeed but don’t are twice as likely to suffer postnatal depression as those who decide to use formula from the outset, according to the largest study of its kind.
Researchers from Cambridge University tested the mental health of 10.000 British women twice during pregnancy and again at eight weeks, eight months, 21 months and 33 months old.
They found that women who planned to breastfeed and were successful had the lowest risk of postnatal depression altogether.
“Breastfeeding has well-established benefits to babies, in terms of their physical health and cognitive development; our study shows that it also benefits the mental health of mothers,” said study leader Dr Maria Iacovou.
“In fact, the effects on mothers’ mental health that we report in this study are also likely to have an impact on babies, since maternal depression has previously been shown to have negative effects on many aspects of children’s development.
The association between breastfeeding and postnatal depression was stronger when the baby was eight weeks old than when the baby was eight months.
Dr Iacovou said more support is needed for mothers wanting to breastfeed.
“Lots of mothers and babies take to breastfeeding pretty easily. But for many others, it doesn’t come naturally at all; for these mothers, having someone with the training, the skills, and perhaps most importantly the time to help them get it right, can make all the difference,” she said.
“However good the level of support that’s provided, there will be some mothers who wanted to breastfeed and who don’t manage to. It’s clear that these mothers need a great deal of understanding and support.”
The World Health Organization recommends babies are breastfed exclusively until they are six months old, then breastfeeding should be continued alongside foods for at least two years.
In Australia, 96 percent of mothers initiate breastfeeding, but by the time babies are three months old, only 39 percent are being exclusively breastfed. That drops to 15 percent at five months of age.
Professor Philip Boyce, a University of Sydney psychiatrist, told ninemsn that the same link between breastfeeding and postnatal depression exists in Australia.
“Breastfeeding rates are rather low in women who have postnatal depression,” he said.
“It may be that when women are depressed may not feel that they can manage with breastfeeding. But it may also be that women who do get postnatal depression are often unsupported and don’t have very supportive partners and that might be also be a contributing factor for not breastfeeding.”
Professor Boyce said women who are depressed in pregnancy are much less likely to breastfeed.
“Sometimes women with severe depression just don’t feel capable of breastfeeding but a complication there is that they feel worse because they are not able to breastfeed,” he said.
“There are some cases where women really struggle to breastfeed and may feel they are not performing their role as well as they should and that may well be a contributing factor to it.”
Professor Boyce said women who have difficulty breastfeeding should cut themselves some slack.
“It’s important women don’t put too much pressure on themselves,” he said.
“If they are worried about their breastfeeding that’s going to distress them more. You’re not a bad woman if you don’t breastfeed. We prefer women to breastfeed but if they are struggling to do so, that is okay.”
Jessica Leonard, spokesperson for Australian Breastfeeding Association, told ninemsn planning for breastfeeding before the baby is born can help improve a woman’s success.
“Going along to breastfeeding education classes and finding out a bit of information about how it works and what to expect from a breastfeeding baby can have a strong impact on the outcomes,” she said.
“You also need to plan to have a support network. Meeting other mums who have breastfed well and health professionals who have training to give you skilled support.”
The study was published in the journal Maternal and Child Health.
Author: Kimberly Gillan. Approving editor: Kristen Amiet
This article first appeared on Nine MSN Health and Wellbeing on 21 August 2014.