Mental Health and Breastfeeding: How to Cope with the Challenges

Understanding the physiological effects of breastfeeding.

From the moment your baby is born, nursing through breastfeeding can have a significant impact on their growth and development. It's importance is well known not only for providing nutrition to your infant but for also having many physical and psychological benefits between mother and infant.

But with the joys of motherhood come the obstacles, and things are not always as easy when it comes to managing your own mental health. It's not often acknowledged that for many women, breastfeeding can be a difficult process both mentally and physically.

When you're a new mom, you want to dive into all things motherhood - we often focus on what others advise we should do versus what may be best for us. But ignoring your own needs can potentially lead to mental health obstacles down the line.

The Benefits of Breastfeeding

Breast milk has many positive benefits for both mother and baby. Aside from gaining all the essential nutrients they need to grow healthy and strong from their mother's milk, babies also acquire antigens that help protect against infections and diseases common in infants.

Breastfeeding also promotes the production of oxytocin, a crucial lactation hormone that is related to maternal bonds between mom and baby. When your baby breastfeeds, oxytocin is released in your brain and in your baby's brain too!

Nutritional & Physical Benefits for Mom

Not only does baby benefit from breastfeeding, but mom gets tons of nutritional and physical benefits too - breastfeeding can provide substantial nutritional, cognitive, emotional, and immunologic benefits to both infants and mothers.

Breastfeeding can also help support a regular sleep-wake cycle between mother and infant, so when your baby is sleeping, hopefully you may have an easier time catching some much needed Zzz's.

Psychological Impacts

Nursing your baby naturally has been known to also increase cognitive abilities and responses - breastfeeding mothers have reported that they are more likely to experience an overall positive mood, less anxiety, and increased calm behavior when compared to those who formula fed.

That being said, know that everyone's circumstance is personal to their own experience and there may be a number of factors such as age, education, economic situation, and even support system that can influence their psychological well being in relation to breastfeeding - just as breastfeeding can bring wonderful benefits, it can also prove to be a major stressor on those who may experience difficulty.

Strengthening Bonds Between Mother and Baby

There's nothing more precious and intimate than holding your baby to your chest. Breastfeeding promotes skin-to-skin contact, which is important in your baby's growing stage in life.

It's no secret that we crave human contact - it helps us build connections to others and the world around us. Spending quality time with your baby in an affectionate manner through an experience such as breastfeeding is a great way to build those bonds starting in the early stages of life.

Child Development

Breastfeeding is also widely recognized as positively facilitating brain activity, development, and encourages social behaviors in infants. Children who are breastfed are more likely to excel in academic and social settings, and reduce crying habits.

However, these findings regarding the baby's brain development through lactation do not fully account for the reported effects of breastfeeding on brain development. Additional factors such as mother/infant relationship through touch and warmth, must be taken into account, as they could contribute to the recorded impacts of breastfeeding.

Challenges with Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding can be great, but what happens when it isn't a feasible option? The problem with the "breast is best" mentality that society holds is that it can make mothers who choose not to breast feed feel inadequate. But not all mothers who don't breast feed their child may experience negative effects of doing so. In some cases, it may even be in the best interest for you. Let's talk about some of the challenges that come with breastfeeding.

Risk Factors for Maternal Mental Health

There are many instances why you may choose not to breastfeed. Whether you've experienced difficulties with breastfeeding in the past or are nervous for future periods, know that any reason you may take a different route in your child's nursing journey is completely valid.

Some common reasons why some women may encounter difficulties with either pump or exclusive breastfeeding may be due to:

  • traumatic birth experience
  • medical complications
  • pain/discomfort
  • history of abuse
  • diagnosed mental illnesses

Postpartum Depression

Postpartum Depression (PPD) can begin anytime after birth, but generally occurs within the first year. About 1 in 7 moms may experience postpartum depression. Constant depressive or anxious thoughts can be detrimental to maternal mental health, and can lead to difficulties in nurturing your child and giving them the care they need.

The most important thing is to never suffer through it alone. If you think you may need extra assistance, talk to your doctor and those you trust about how to navigate living with PPD.

Extreme Pressure to Breastfeed

As women, we're often taught that our bodies have expectations. They're made to provide and nurture offspring, and if you're not capable of doing so or have adverse feelings, this pressure can make us feel invalidated as a mother, as a woman, or even as a person.

Know that any challenges you may face with breastfeeding do not negate your identity. Just as every parent has their own strategies to raising their children, every mother has their own way in nurturing their baby. Your value as a mother is for you to decide, and no one else's.

Validating Your Worth and Identity as a Mother

From the moment you found out you were pregnant, all talk and priorities have been about the baby, no doubt. But make sure you are given what you need to feel your best. When mom's in good health, so is baby!

Recognizing that feeling an overwhelming amount of pressure is normal as a new parent, and it's a crucial part of the process to relieve it. Unfortunately, many women who are unable to or choose not to breastfeed may experience feelings of guilt or sadness, especially with the pressure and societal expectations around breastfeeding.

Remember, Your Health Matters

Whether it's physical or mental, we want to emphasize that your health should come first over breastfeeding! Nothing can break the connection between you and your baby, and nurturing your child in good health is the best thing you can do for them.

How to Deal With Unrealistic Expectations

It's absolutely normal to feel stressed out, anxious, or even guilty about looming expectations as you enter into motherhood especially when those expectations can quickly get out of hand and unrealistic.

The most important thing you can do for yourself is give yourself the space you need. Recognize what is best for you and your baby, whether you choose to breastfeed or not. Set boundaries with yourself, loved ones, and those around you - remember, you call the shots, mama!

Remember that breastfeeding is not the be-all and end-all of becoming a mother. Caring for a child looks different for everyone, and that's the special journey you get to embark on!

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The content provided here is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of medical professionals. It should not be used to diagnose or treat medical conditions or problems. Please contact your healthcare provider with questions or concerns.
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