In honor of National Breastfeeding Month and World Breastfeeding Week
August is National Breastfeeding Month and World Breastfeeding Week. Cities and communities throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the country as a whole are marking this special month, some with flag raising and other events. It is a time to honor all mothers, and educate both parents and the public about the benefits of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is beneficial to babies as it increases their immunity to certain diseases. Breastfeeding also lowers their risk of diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases. Breastfeeding also reduces the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) (Days & Trowbridge, 2023).
The relationship between maternal mental health and breastfeeding is a complicated one. There are many studies that show that breastfeeding is linked to lower instances of postpartum anxiety and depression. However, there are also studies that show that the difficulties of attempting to breastfeed may increase the risk of postpartum anxiety and depression. Some studies show that breastfeeding is a protective factor against postpartum mood disorders. Other studies show that early or sudden interruption of breastfeeding or stopping altogether may lead to an increase in onset and severity of postpartum mental disorders. Furthermore, society has recently swung back in favor of breastfeeding, but may be at a point of fanaticism. Mothers who are unable to breastfeed may feel inadequate, like they have failed, which increases the likelihood of a mood disorder.
Society’s lean toward “breast is best” is based mostly on the fact that mothers and babies in lesser developed countries must rely on breastfeeding for adequate nutrition. Countries with access to high quality formula for infants have less of a reason to insist on breastfeeding for everyone. There is no significant difference in nutritional health for babies who are formula-fed in countries with adequate formula supply. However, recently the United States had a formula shortage, and in this case, breastfed babies fared better than formula-fed babies as their nutrition source was not in short supply!
The benefits of breastfeeding go beyond anxiety and depression protection. Breastfeeding releases oxytocin in the mother, which promotes bonding and attachment for both mother and infant. Early attachment is known to be a protective factor for many mental health disorders in the developing child. Breastfeeding is also known to regulate the cortisol response to stress in mother and baby, thus reducing the body’s overall reaction to stress. Breastfeeding also helps regulate sleep and wakefulness cycles for mother and baby, allowing them to get more rest, which protects against psychiatric illnesses (Rivi, Petrilli, & Bloom, 2020).
However, if breastfeeding is difficult, if you have to stop suddenly, if you are more prone to anxiety and depression, if you are unable to breastfeed, then the idea of breastfeeding is best, the societal pressure associated with breastfeeding, and the internal pressure may be detrimental to your mental health. The decision to breastfeed is a highly personal decision, one best left to the mother herself. Professional opinion may weigh in, but ultimately, a mother knows what is best for herself, and should be allowed the dignity of self-determination on whether to breastfeed or not.
Days, W. & Trowbridge, R. (2023). Springfield marks start of National Breastfeeding Month. Western Mass News. https://www.westernmassnews.com/2023/08/01/springfield-marks-start-national-breastfeeding-month/
Rivi, R., Petrilli, G., & Bloom, J. M. C., (2020). Mind the mother when considering breastfeeding. Front. Glob. Womens Health, Vol 1. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fgwh.2020.00003/full