Posted by Hilary Parker on August 4, 2011
A study just confirmed a sad part of my new motherhood experience: Trouble breastfeeding and depression go together like infants and nipple cream.
In my case, my milk simply never came in. And I tried EVERYTHING. All I wound up with was bloody boobs and a still-screaming child. With my second, I knew it might be an uphill battle, but I wanted to try again to breastfeed, so I talked to numerous lactation consultants way before the birth and took a number of steps to help my milk come in. And it did, a little bit, roughly 10 days after giving birth. It supported about 50 percent of her needs for the first month before I caught the flu and strep throat all at once and had to stop. But that was a big victory for me, especially since when I couldn’t breastfeed the first time around, it sent me into a spiral of shame and depression. What kind of mother could I be if my own body was betraying me — first with a C-section and now this? So I’m glad to see this issue being addressed in the scientific literature.
The study’s authors are careful to note that the findings represent a correlation, not necessarily a causation. (In other words, breastfeeding problems are not necessarily what causes the depression.) But they often go hand-in-hand.
The study surveyed 2,600 mothers who had at least attempted breastfeeding, and found that fewer than 8 percent developed major depression within two months of having their baby. But that risk was significantly higher in women who experienced severe breast pain or generally “disliked” breastfeeding during the first several weeks of their child’s life.
Lead researcher Dr. Stephanie Watkins of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill notes a limit of the study: No information was collected on whether the participants had experienced depression while pregnant. This means one explanation of the findings is that women who were depressed before giving birth then had a harder time breastfeeding.
“Everything is harder when you’re depressed,” adds Dr. Alison Stuebe, who also worked on the study. “It may be that some women were depressed during pregnancy, and that made breastfeeding harder.”
Or, Stuebe notes, perhaps existing hormonal factors come into play regarding both depression and trouble with breastfeeding. She and the other researchers who participated in the study are looking into that hypothesis.
But regardless of why depression and breastfeeding hurdles are connected, researchers say doctors should keep an extra close eye on women who have trouble breastfeeding, as these women are more likely to develop postpartum depression.