The postpartum period is one of the most physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging times of a woman's life. There has been a dramatic rise in the number of mothers diagnosed with perinatal mental health problems in the U.S. in recent years. Postpartum mental health disorders include depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and psychosis. Up to 20% of all women develop depression or anxiety in the year after giving birth, and symptoms usually emerge in the first 4-6 weeks after delivery.
The relationship between breastfeeding and postpartum mental health is complicated. Breastfeeding that goes smoothly and without significant problems has a positive effect on mothers' mental health and well-being. These effects on maternal wellness are hormonally driven. Oxytocin, one of the main breastfeeding hormones, counteracts cortisol, lowers the stress response, and promotes mother-baby bonding. This leads to a decrease in anxiety, lower blood pressure, and relaxation. Prolactin, the other hormone involved in making breast milk, induces sleep (in both mothers and babies) and fosters mothering instincts. Oxytocin and prolactin also decrease depression-induced inflammation. Thus, breastfeeding not only helps prevent the emergence of mental health problems, but it can also ameliorate symptoms of depression and anxiety after they develop.
On the flip side, breastfeeding problems, including pain while nursing, sleep deprivation, and lactation failure, can be a trigger for mental health problems during the postpartum period. According to a recent study, women who experience persistent pain while breastfeeding are two times as likely to develop postpartum depression (PPD) than women who do not feel pain. Common causes of pain while breastfeeding include a shallow latch, tongue tie, skin abrasions, and infection. Hence, it is important that mothers who feel pain while breastfeeding get help from a lactation consultant as soon as possible.
Postpartum mental health disorders can also be exacerbated by sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep is a universal problem for new moms, but it can be especially problematic for those who are experiencing challenges with breastfeeding. Mothers who experience a low milk supply, are exclusively pumping, feeding multiples, and/or trying to establish a milk supply via pumping for a premature baby are at risk for significant sleep disruption and should be closely monitored for PPD. Per the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine (ABM):
The demands of nighttime breastfeeding can be challenging for mothers for whom interruption of sleep is a major trigger for mood symptoms. In these cases, it may be helpful to arrange for another caregiver to feed the infant once at night, allowing the mother to receive 5–6 hours of uninterrupted sleep. A caregiver may also bring the infant to the mother to feed at the breast and then assume responsibility for settling the baby back to sleep, thereby minimizing maternal sleep disruption.
Breastfeeding problems and lactation failure can trigger PPD if mothers feel significant inadequacy and shame.
Mothers who are unable to breastfeed and/or experience problems with feeding may blame themselves and feel like they are "bad" mothers if breastfeeding does not go as planned.
It's important that mothers' feelings and emotions in these settings get addressed and that a priority is placed on helping new moms to enjoy their newborns.
These sentiments are mirrored in a recent publication by the ABM:
Breastfeeding difficulties and perinatal depression symptoms often present together, and management of depression should include a discussion of the mother's experience of breastfeeding. Some mothers with depression find that breastfeeding enhances bonding and improves their mood, whereas others find breastfeeding to be difficult. For dyads struggling with milk production and latch issues, efforts should be undertaken to simplify feeding plans to ensure that mother and infant have time to enjoy one another.
Mothers who are being treated for depression and anxiety are often concerned about taking prescription medications while breastfeeding. Fortunately, all of the commonly prescribed medications for anxiety and depression are safe for mothers to take while nursing. The first line medications for PPD are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), of which sertraline (Zoloft) is the first line. Other commonly prescribed SSRIs are Prozac (fluoxetine) and Celexa (citalopram). Two excellent and easily accessible resources about the safety of medications while breastfeeding are the Infant Risk Center and the Drugs and Lactation Database (LactMed via the National Library of Medicine). Both of these resources can also be downloaded as apps for use on phones and tablets as well.
It's not unusual for new moms who are experiencing mental health symptoms to get conflicting advice. Some moms are counseled to continue to breastfeed around the clock, others are advised to breastfeed during the day and formula feed at night, and others are told to immediately stop breastfeeding and switch to formula. As mentioned earlier, breastfeeding can help to both prevent and treat depression by releasing hormones that decrease inflammation and promote relaxation and mother-infant bonding. It's important for new moms with PPD and anxiety to continue to breastfeed if they desire, but to know that they are "good" mothers no matter what feeding choice they ultimately make.
Self-care is essential for mothers struggling with postpartum mental health issues. This may include enlisting help at night to get extra pockets of sleep, reaching out to friends and family for help with cooking, cleaning, and housework, or making time to exercise. The majority of mothers who experience perinatal mood disorders go on to have successful breastfeeding relationships with their babies.
The keys to successful breastfeeding in the setting of a postpartum mental disorder is to reframe goals and expectations; to recognize that breastfeeding is not an "all or nothing" process; and to focus on self-care, rest, nourishment, and enlisting help. It's important to remember that adequate support during the "fourth trimester" is the key to preventing the development of both breastfeeding problems and mental health problems.
Brown, A., Rance, J., Bennett, J. Understanding the relationship between breastfeeding and postnatal depression: the role of pain and physical difficulties. J Adv Nurs. 2016. 72(2): 273–282.Sriraman, N., Melvin, K., Meltzer-Brody, S., and the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine. ABM Clinical Protocol #18: Use of Antidepressants in Breastfeeding Mothers. Breastfeeding Medicine. 2015. Volume 10 (6): 290-298.
Quilt host. Alicia , shares how addressing personal trauma can lead to a more embodied sense of self—a crucial key to finding success and content. Sign up for her workshops here!
We all have a story. These are the stories that we present to the world, those that inform how we respond to those around us, and the stories that we internalize, that become part of our psyche. For Quilt host and trauma-informed class facilitator, Alicia Magaña, the latter are what inform our personal narratives — or deepest truths about who we are. Developing a healthy personal narrative is crucial to realizing our fullest potential. But what does that mean, and how do we do it?
Over the course of an average life, we all experience things that complicate or even harm our subconscious perception of self. When left unaddressed, this negativity can snowball and have serious and damaging effects. Thankfully, we all have the power to create a cohesive and embodied personal narrative. It just takes a bit of work.
So what does that mean, "complications"? It's no secret that life is tough. No one gets through it without a few hurdles. "In the psychological sense," says Alicia, "trauma is anything from the past that is intruding in the present moment. Sometimes we're aware of it, but most of the time, we're not."
Trauma is a big word. There's Trauma with a capital T, that affects entire groups of people in one fell swoop — the legacy of slavery and its systematic effect on black Americans is one such example. To be very clear: These kinds of Traumas are more difficult to address and require cooperation from institutions as well as individuals.
Then there's trauma, something that unfortunately most people experience in their lives, whether knowingly or not. These can be relationships with our parents, deaths of loved ones, or the collective wounds of mass shootings or sex trafficking. Alicia believes that the majority of personal traumas occur in childhood when we are entirely dependent upon others for our survival. If, for example, we grow up in an unsafe home, we are required to be dependent upon caretakers who don't feel safe.
This was Alicia's experience growing up, and she has seen it manifest with her 4-year-old son. Just recently, she had an epiphany when her son didn't want to eat his vegetables. She took the time to embrace him and come to an agreement with him, but at the same time, felt an anger swelling in her.
"It's like this 9-year-old angry me was so pissed off," she says. Her subconscious was jealous that her son had a parent who cares about and is curious about his feelings and his needs. Being able to recognize and address those feelings allowed her to begin to unravel and heal them.
Why Would I Want to Dig Deep?
"The benefit is that you can put it in the past," says Alicia, "you can take it from implicit to explicit." The work may be painful, but it allows you to change the course of your own history. By digging deep and investigating past hurt, you're then able "to connect to yourself, knowing how to identify and name the feelings and needs behind it," she says.
Trauma is anything from the past that is intruding in the present moment.
Here's where the narrative part comes in. By going through the process and naming those feelings, you're able to build a coherent narrative then and define what triggers you.
"The key is to clearly define the beginning, middle, and end," says Alicia. That way, when something takes you out of your "resiliency zone" — say, being stuck in traffic, or when life throws you a challenging curveball — you're able to take a step back and understand why you're feeling that way. You can then react in a way that's healthier and more in line with the person you're choosing to be.
"It's knowing the signs so that you can identify it and then be able to say to yourself, 'Oh, I'm in that space again,'" says Alicia. "It's like ongoing maintenance. Because we're all humans. And we all need daily maintenance."
The Importance of Collective Sharing
This is deep work that can certainly be done on your own or one-on-one with a trusted friend or therapist. But, like most things in life, coming together to address and unravel personal traumas can help accelerate breakthroughs and jog memories. Alicia hosts classes through Quilt in Los Angeles, and the journey has been significant for participants.
"Being in a group setting allows you to listen about other people's experiences," says Alicia. While everyone's experience may be different shades, they're at least all in the rainbow. "It starts to look a bit the same in everyone's home," she says. "That's one of the biggest benefits I've noticed in our particular group."
It's like ongoing maintenance. Because we're all humans. And we all need daily maintenance.
Alicia keeps her classes a safe space for all by offering strict agreements — no interrupting, no cross-talking, etc. — and participants are more than welcome to pass on questions if they'd like. "You can absolutely just show up and be an observer," she says.
Observer or participant, we all know the power of what can happen when women come together. Imagine what would happen if we all rewrote our personal narratives — together.
If you're in LA, don't miss Alicia's remaining classes in the series! Click here for more information and to RSVP.
Quilt is a mobile app that offers a deeper sense of connection in the modern world by making it easier for women to come together for real conversations online and offline. Download the app and join us for a chat, gathering, or house party!