Breastfeeding improves mothers’ mental health

A new study of over 10,000 women has shown that women who breastfeed after giving birth have significantly lower chances of post-natal depression than their counterparts who didn’t.

There are still many things we don’t yet understand about breastfeeding, as this study highlights – mothers who planned to breastfeed and were actually able to do it were around 50% less likely to become depressed than mothers who had not planned to and did not. The relationship between breastfeeding and post-natal depression was most pronounced when babies were 8 weeks old and started to lose its weight quickly after that.

The research analyzed 13,998 births in the Bristol area in the early 1990s. Maternal depression was measured using the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale when babies were 8 weeks, and 8, 21 and 33 months old. Doctors also took into consideration any preexisting conditions to rule out any potential external influence. It also controlled for socioeconomic factors such as income and relationship status, and for other potential confounders such as how babies were delivered, and whether they were premature. It’s one of the biggest studies of the kind, and also one of the few to control for external stimuli.

“Breastfeeding has well-established benefits to babies, in terms of their physical health and cognitive development; our study shows that it also benefits the mental health of mothers,” says Dr Maria Iacovou, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Sociology and a Bye Fellow at Fitzwilliam College. “In fact, the effects on mothers’ mental health that we report in this study are also likely to have an impact on babies, since maternal depression has previously been shown to have negative effects on many aspects of children’s development.”

Doctor Iacovou believes that mothers should not only be encouraged to breastfeed when their health allows it, but governments should also provide a level of support that will help mothers who want to breastfeed succeed.

“Lots of mothers and babies take to breastfeeding pretty easily. But for many others, it doesn’t come naturally at all; for these mothers, having someone with the training, the skills, and perhaps most importantly the time to help them get it right, can make all the difference,” she adds. “However good the level of support that’s provided, there will be some mothers who wanted to breastfeed and who don’t manage to. It’s clear that these mothers need a great deal of understanding and support; there is currently hardly any skilled specialist help for these mothers, and this is something else that health providers should be thinking about.”

Journal Reference (open access): Cristina Borra, Maria Iacovou, Almudena Sevilla. New Evidence on Breastfeeding and Postpartum Depression: The Importance of Understanding Women’s Intentions.

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