As we celebrate World Breastfeeding Week and the beautiful things our bodies can do for our babies, we should also take time to remember the emotional hardships some moms face: The unspoken reality that many moms are dealing with postpartum depression while breastfeeding.
As a single mom, I experienced depression during pregnancy and after giving birth, even while breastfeeding. Like many new mothers, I thought it was simply a phase like baby blues because no one had talked to me about it. Moms can feel so alone if they think they are doing something wrong or are too afraid to ask for help because they will be pushed further into doing something that feeds into their depression - such as nursing their baby.
For some, breastfeeding can be an uplifting and bonding experience and for others, quite the opposite. I found breastfeeding to be the one thing that actually helped to lift me out of my feelings of deep sadness. This may be due to the release of oxytocin in the mother's body when she is breastfeeding, which can help bond to baby. I could feel the shift in my emotional state when I breastfed my son. It suddenly felt as though I could breathe again and that as a mother, I was doing something exceptional for my child that only I could do. It made me feel powerful and able to face the world again.
I know my experience is not like many because of the stories I hear while working with new mothers dealing with postpartum and breastfeeding issues. For one, there's immense pressure to breastfeed from our doctors, WIC, other moms and society itself. While breastfeeding and breast milk are incredible gifts we can pass along to our children, pressure to do so can be detrimental for someone’s mental health state. PRAMS data tells us 1 in 10 new mothers experience feelings of sadness and being overwhelmed. Among the 79% of new mothers who initiate breastfeeding, feelings of sadness can worsen when a new mom is unable to breastfeed for whatever reason. While it's estimated that 1-5% of women cannot physically produce enough milk, it does not take into account how stress affects our body or the unwillingness to do something that feels uncomfortable.
Another critical factor is past trauma, including sexual trauma and violence. It is never acceptable to push a mom to breastfeed who may be triggered to past trauma through the act of feeding her baby at the breast. When mothers confide that putting the baby to breast brings up feelings of anxiety, I support them in the way that is healthiest for her and her child. That may mean pumping her milk in a bottle or sometimes not even breastfeeding at all. That is OK. A mother’s mental health is of the utmost importance in infant feeding decisions.
One of the things we can do for new mothers and their babies is to make sure moms have the tools and support to care for her mental health starting in early pregnancy. It is equally important that breastfeeding is taken into the equation when assessing someone's mental health. Mothers should be guided correctly to what medication or natural supplements are safe to take while breastfeeding. It can also be especially useful to refer her to a moms group with others experiencing similar symptoms of sadness or feeling low.
While some others may be like me and find breastfeeding to be something that lifts their mood and brings them to an emotionally healthier place, we have to remember many new mothers are silently suffering when it comes to breastfeeding their child.