Mom holding her baby and smiling.

What to Know About Breastfeeding and Mental Health

Before exploring some of the potential impacts breastfeeding can have on your mental health, it’s worth noting its benefits. Breastfeeding is a great way to prepare your child for a healthy development over the years. It can lead to a stronger bond, higher immune system, and lower levels of stress over time. There are several reasons you should try to breastfeed before taking another route, but that doesn’t mean you absolutely need to continue. For additional guidance, here’s some important information about breastfeeding and mental health. 


Understanding the Pressure to Breastfeed

Breastfeeding is often discussed as the best way to nourish your baby. While yes, breastfeeding has a lot of beneficial effects on development, society tends to get stuck in the idea that it’s the only way a mother can care for her child. This leads to a lot of external pressure to breastfeed, even if it’s not physically possible.

Although well-intended, the pressure to breastfeed can also have a large impact on your overall mental health and feelings surrounding the process. Regardless of what people in your life are saying, breastfeeding is not something that should be done at the expense of your mental health. If you continue to push forward and things are becoming more difficult, it can create negative consequences for both you and your baby.

We believe that understanding the benefits of breastfeeding is an important factor to consider, but every mom has a right to choose how they nourish their baby. If, for whatever reason, you decide to formula feed, that’s okay too. Just make sure that you work with your pediatrician to ensure your baby’s getting the nutrition they need to grow. 


The Effects of Breastfeeding on Mental Health

The impact of breastfeeding on the body and mind is different for every mother. It can also be different for the same mother between different pregnancies. This makes the relationship between breastfeeding and mental health quite complicated. Oftentimes, the way you’re affected depends on a variety of factors, from your milk supply and ease of nursing to the type of support system you receive from friends and family members. Let’s explore both sides of the equation.

Breastfeeding’s Positive Impact on Mental Health

For many new moms, breastfeeding can have a highly positive effect on mental health. It provides an excellent opportunity to strengthen your bond with your newborn. This is partially caused by the fact that breastfeeding releases oxytocin. Oxytocin is a chemical that helps promote a sense of calmness and can alleviate stress levels. It can also increase your milk supply and make breastfeeding easier, thus creating a positive feedback cycle. Oxytocin tends to increase feelings of affection that a new mother shares with their newborn.

Breastfeeding can also lead to higher confidence levels in your ability to parent, thus having a positive effect on your mental health. This tends to be stronger with first-time moms who may have been nervous about the transition, but it can happen with any moms with a newborn. 

The outcome of breastfeeding tends to have an increasingly positive effect on your wellbeing and overall mental health if:

- You continue to breastfeed exclusively (with supplemental nursing sessions) for the first six months of life to a year

- Have an adequate breast milk supply

- Don’t face physical difficulties with latching or other breastfeeding issues

- Have a strong network of support at home and during work (if you are a working mother) 

The positive mental health effects of breastfeeding can also lead to reduced fussiness in your baby, stronger cognitive development, and a lower risk of depression during your baby’s life. 

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The Negative Side Effects of Breastfeeding

Unfortunately, if breastfeeding doesn’t come easily, it can have the opposite effect on your mental health. New moms who struggle with latching may become frustrated or feel like they’re unable to provide for their newborns. While it can seem like an uphill battle, there are things you can do to overcome latching issues. One of the best options is to work with a lactation consultant and try some new positions

Other new mothers experience dysphoria after breastfeeding, otherwise known as dysphoric milk ejection reflex (D-MER). There’s no clear understanding of why this happens to some women and not others, but many doctors believe it has something to do with how the body reacts to hormones that are released during breastfeeding. 

Some signs that indicate you may be experiencing D-MER include:

- Frustration following breastfeeding
- General unhappiness
- Uneasiness with breastfeeding 

While these feelings often dissipate quickly after a feeding, they can create a general sense of dread surrounding the act of breastfeeding. This can extend into other areas of parenting and even lead to aversions. Breastfeeding may also lead to higher rates of depression in some mothers, along with a feeling of anxiety and overwhelm. It’s important to remember that if you experience any of these negative emotions, it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad parent. 

The best way to care for your newborn is to seek help with a licensed professional and consider joining a support group to connect with other mothers going through the same thing. With one in five women suffering from some type of maternal mental health disorder, it’s reassuring to know that you’re not alone. 

You may also want to be proactive about your mental health if you have any risk factors. Some of these include: 

- History of mental illness or mood disorders
- Family history of mental illness
- Traumatic birth experience
- History of trauma
- Depressive symptoms throughout pregnancy
- Lack of support system
- Marital strain
- Low self-esteem or body dysmorphia 
- Financial hardships
- Medical complications with your baby
- Babies who are more prone to colic or fussiness

Both positive and negative effects on mental health can be affected by a number of things. If you make plans to nourish your baby with breast milk, but then face challenges that make this impossible, it can lead to an internal struggle between what you want and what is feasible. Working with a lactation consultant may help you overcome physical challenges, but formula may be necessary to make sure your child is receiving adequate nutrition. 

In some situations, birth defects or congenital conditions can also make breastfeeding either difficult or impossible. Remember, the best thing you can do in either of these instances is to continue being supportive, loving, and cognizant of your baby’s changing needs. Listen to your doctor and never feel ashamed. Your ability to breastfeed does not make you a good or bad parent, but allowing your mental health to suffer can have lasting consequences on both you and your baby’s bond and development over time. 

A Word on Postpartum Depression

Postpartum depression is a severe, long-lasting form of depression that affects new moms. This is different from what many people call, “the baby blues.” Feelings of sadness or symptoms associated with the baby blues tend to go away about a week after delivery, while postpartum depression symptoms can last for long-periods of time and interfere with your ability to care for your child. Some of them include: 

- Depression
- Withdrawing from care
- Severe mood swings
- Reduced interest or pleasure in activities
- Changes in eating habits
- Feelings of worthiness, shame, or guilt
- Feeling like an inadequate parent
- Severe anxiety and panic attacks
- Fear that you’re not a good mother
- Thoughts about harming yourself or your baby

If you experience any symptoms of postpartum depression, seek help from a loved one or a medical professional. There are treatments available to help you through this difficult period. 

Choosing Between Breastfeeding and Formula

At the end of the day, every decision you make throughout parenthood can affect your mental health. The most important thing to remember is that everyone is different, and you don’t need to do things exactly as your friends or family members have. You can be open to advice, but try to take things with a grain of salt. Trying to please everyone—especially when advice or parenting styles vary from your own—is going to take a toll on your mental health. The way you decide to feed your child doesn’t dictate whether you’re a good or bad parent! You can still develop a healthy bond with your baby while supporting their development using formula. 

If you decide to continue with breastfeeding, Byram Healthcare has plenty of resources, experts, and products to help you throughout your journey. We also have a large selection of  breast pumps through insurance available to new and expecting mothers to help supplement your nursing sessions. This is a great way to share feedings with your partner or other caregivers, so you gain some autonomy back during the transition into parenthood. To learn more, view our breast pump comparison guide and start your order today.