Breastfeeding and Maternal Mental Health
To breastfeed or not to breastfeed is a question question that can have a significant impact on the mood and overall mental health of the mother. It is often tied to appraisals of self-worth, and can be seen as a measurement of being a "good mom."
Research has shown that breastfeeding can reduce stress and can help to protect the mother’s mood, if she planned to breastfeed. It is the complications that often accompany breastfeeding that can lead to distress. Nursing may be painful, baby may not latch easily, or low supply may be an issue. These common occurrences can quickly become personal failures in the mother's mind. Friends, family, and healthcare professionals may inadvertently make things worse by questioning or making snide comments. After I began weaning my son at 6 months, he came down with an ear infection and I remember a friend jokingly saying, "It's because you took away that good breastmilk!" Even though he had experienced chronic ear infections for months before I weaned him, I felt immense guilt and sadness. Unfortunately, those around us often have no idea how fragile one's sense of self-esteem as a mom may be, and how rapidly a comment like this can send us spiraling into mom guilt full-force.
Weaning or transitioning to formula/milk can present its own challenges. Hormonal changes and feelings of failure associated with rapid weaning have been shown to correlate with increased onset of postpartum depression and anxiety. If possible, I recommend weaning gradually over a period of 2-3 weeks to avoid a drastic decrease of oxytocin, which is a hormone that produces feelings of love and connection, and contributes to the positive feelings associated with breastfeeding. Low supply and returning to work can create additional threats to one’s mental health as mothers may find that their work schedule does not accommodate enough time for pumping which may lead to weaning before intended. Be sure to check out online resources and take time to strategize before returning to work to think through potential challenges.
Bottom line--There is no "right" way to manage decisions around breastfeeding. If you are struggling in this area, a few potential avenues are:
1. Connect with other mothers in a nonjudgmental space. Close friends, support groups, and even online chat boards can provide much-needed validation.
2. Contact a mental health professional and invest in your own therapy as a form of self-care.
3. Be open to amending the plan. Remember that despite what method of feeding you decide, you can nurture your baby and create an ironclad bond, which is of immeasurable value. Allowing yourself the permission to show up in the way that works for you will go a long way toward that end.
*This post was inspired by an email exchange with a writer who used my feedback in a story on Singlecare.