Postnatal depression risk higher in mothers who don’t breastfeed

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A large study done with 14000 new mothers has found that breastfeeding can reduce the risk of postnatal depression by 50%.

However, the risk of depression in women who plan to breastfeed and are ultimately unable to do so has increased drastically.

The study, which has been published in the journal Maternal and Child Health, has asked for women who are unable to breastfeed to be given more support.

It is clear that there are health benefits to breastfeeding and the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that babies are fed nothing but breast milk for the first six months of their lives.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge stated that the impact on the mother is not as clear cut.

It has been found that 10% of women develop depression after giving birth to their first child.

The researchers made use of data related to 13998 births in England’s south-west.

It found that of the women who planned to breastfeed, there was a postnatal depression risk reduction of 50% if they commenced breastfeeding. However, the risk of depression was double among women who wanted to breastfeed, but were unable to do so.

One of the researchers, Dr Maria Iacovou, said that breastfeeding appears to have a protective effect, but there is another side to it as well as those who wanted to breastfeed and could not were at the highest risk in all the groups.

The benefits were increased for each week of breastfeeding up to one month. The longer term impact of breastfeeding on postnatal depression could not be determined as there was a very small number of women who continued breastfeeding for several months after giving birth.

Dr Iacovou said that the health profession should be alert. She said that it is the right thing to do to tell mothers that they should breastfeed as there are so many benefits. The focus, however, should be placed on offering support to those mothers who wanted to breastfeed and are unable to do so as they are placed into a higher risk group. It is important that health professionals observe those that fall into this group. Dr Iacovou added that feelings of failure as a mother were contributing factors and by improving the mother’s health, the baby will benefit.

The possible explanation for the benefit of breastfeeding on postnatal depression includes the release of feel-good hormones during the production of milk.

A senior policy adviser at the parenting charity, NCT, Rosemary Dodds, said mothers often have other pressures after the birth, such as lack of sleep, anxiety and pain. She said that breastfeeding helps to relax the mothers and thus reduces stress. This means that it may play an important role in the prevention of the development of mental problems.

She added that further research into this subject is always welcomed since perinatal mental health is a huge problem for many new mothers. She stated that a minimum of 10% of mothers suffer from postnatal depression.

Image Credit: Hamish Darby

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