Can Breastfeeding Lower Your Chances of Postpartum Depression?


By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder

Australian Senator Larissa Waters recently caught the world’s attention by doing something many new mothers do. She breastfed her newborn baby girl. Waters and her 11 and a half week old daughter made history by being the first mother and child to engage in breastfeeding in Australia's federal Parliament.

Waters received an outpouring of support and appreciation. When she posted on Instagram the picture of herself breastfeeding in the Parliament’s chambers, with other elected officials surrounding her, some of the comments included:

  • “I breastfed my two kids till 2 years old. Respect.”
  • “Well done. Another barrier broken through. Though it’s crazy it’s 2017 and we still have to achieve milestones like this.”
  • “Great job mom! Thanks for helping normalize breastfeeding.”
  • “This is amazing! Proving that women can be in a position of influence and still a dedicated mother.”

On the other hand, some believe breastfeeding should not be done so publicly.

According to an article from The New York Times, one Twitter user tweeted, “Sorry #larissawaters but urinating is perfectly natural also, but we still go somewhere private to do it. Attention seeking.”

Clearly, the goal to “normalize” breastfeeding has been an ongoing fight, and it seems Senator Waters made a big breakthrough.

I think it is important to bring attention to this story, because many may not realize there may be a link between breastfeeding and the mental health of new mothers.

May is National Maternal Depression Awareness Month and to the extent breastfeeding may impact mental health of new mothers we should be proactive and educate ourselves. Indeed, studies show there may be a link between breastfeeding and postpartum depression (PPD).

What is postpartum depression (PPD)?

Depression is a challenging health issue, because there are so many different ways it can manifest itself and postpartum depression is one of them. This type of depression may occur in women after they give birth. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports postpartum depression affects an estimated 13% to 19% of women who have recently given birth. PPD usually occurs within the first three months of delivery.

NIH says, “[a]fter childbirth, the levels of hormones (estrogen and progesterone) in a woman’s body quickly drop. This leads to chemical changes in her brain that may trigger mood swings. In addition, many mothers are unable to get the rest they need to fully recover from giving birth.”  

One journal reported pregnancy changes a woman’s brain for up to two years after giving birth.

What are some of the symptoms of postpartum depression?

  • Feeling sad, hopeless and overwhelmed
  • Crying a lot, sometimes for no apparent reason
  • Worrying/feeling very anxious
  • Thoughts of self-harm or harm to the baby
  • Increased appetite or loss of appetite
  • Oversleeping or being unable to sleep

For a full list of symptoms, click here.

So how does breastfeeding impact mental health?

There is a recent study that supports the finding that breastfeeding may have a “positive effect on mood disturbances related to postpartum depression.” Breastfeeding is associated with the release of oxytocin, which can create a calming effect on postpartum mood disturbances. Other earlier studies conclude longer durations of breastfeeding may reduce the risk of PPD while others say breastfeeding mothers are at an increased risk of PPD. There are even studies that claim there is simply no association between the two at all.

However, one study, conducted in 2014, particularly caught my eye. This study is interesting, because the study focuses on understanding the importance of a woman’s intention regarding feeding her newborn baby.

In the study, more than 10,000 expectant mothers were surveyed. The mothers were asked during their pregnancies how they planned to feed their babies during the first four weeks after giving birth. After their babies were born, researchers asked at several points how each mother was actually feeding their baby and at what age infant formula and solid food were introduced.

Here are the results:

  • Mothers who intended to breastfeed and actually did were about 50% less likely to have PPD than mothers who did not plan to breastfeed and did not.
  • Mothers who intended to breastfeed but did not were more than twice as likely to have PPD than mothers who did not plan to breastfeed and did not.

The study disclosed the importance of providing appropriate “expert breastfeeding support to women who want to breastfeed; but also, of providing compassionate support for women who had intended to breastfeed, but who find themselves unable to.” 

My sense is the problem with many of the earlier studies regarding breastfeeding and PPD is they do not always take into consideration influential factors such as family income, marital status, stressful life events, maternal education and more. There are so many variables that may cause depression, so pinpointing the effects of breastfeeding on mental health in new mothers may be a very challenging task. Pre-existing mental health conditions also need to be taken into consideration.

Nevertheless, to the extent there is some credible evidence that breastfeeding may reduce PPD, it is important to identify some nutritional factors that may increase a woman’s chance of breastfeeding.

It is well documented certain nutrients including vitamin D, folate, calcium, magnesium and iron are under-consumed in the United States. Furthermore, these nutrients are beneficial for breast milk production.

Below are a few foods to include in your daily diet to help you consume adequate amounts of these vital nutrients:

  • For vitamin D: swordfish, salmon, tuna, sardines, beef liver, milk, yogurt, eggs, cheese and orange juice fortified with vitamin D.
  • For folate: beef liver, spinach, black-eyed peas, asparagus, brussels sprouts, avocado, broccoli, mustard greens, kidney beans, wheat germ, tomato juice, oranges, bananas and cherimoyas.   
  • For calcium: yogurt, mozzarella cheese, cheddar cheese, cottage cheese, sardines, milk, calcium-fortified soy milk, calcium-fortified orange juice, tofu, salmon, turnip greens, kale, Chinese cabbage, broccoli and jackfruit.
  • For magnesium: leafy green vegetables (like spinach), legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Foods with fiber, like cherries, are also good sources of magnesium, and many cereals are fortified with this essential mineral.
  • For iron: there are two types of iron -- heme and non-heme. Heme iron is rich in lean meat and seafood. This type of iron is more bioavailable, meaning your body can use it better. Non-heme iron is found in nuts, grains, vegetables and other fortified products.    

To learn more about critical minerals the body needs for breast milk production and more, read Minerals - The Forgotten Nutrient: Your Secret Weapon for Getting and Staying Healthy

Enjoy your healthy life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, health care attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. To learn more about the pH Health Care Team, click here.  


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