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Breastfeeding May Boost Mood in Moms Dealing With Depression, Study Shows

mother breastfeeding newborn baby

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Key Takeaways

  • About 1 in 9 new moms experience maternal depression, which can have an adverse effect on breastfeeding and mother-infant bonding.
  • A first-of-its-kind study examined babies' brain wave activity and found that babies with depressed mothers who are bottle fed have markedly different patterns of brain wave activity than babies who are breastfed.
  • Researchers concluded that breastfeeding can have a positive effect on maternal mood, in addition to benefits for the infant.

It’s estimated that about 1 in 9 new moms suffers from maternal or perinatal depression, most commonly known as postpartum depression (PPD). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), maternal depression can adversely affect breastfeeding, mother-infant bonding, and the quality of parenting.

The WHO says that interventions to nurture the mother-infant relationship are crucial not only for the infant’s growth and development but also for the mother’s mental health. A recent first-of-its-kind study by researchers at Florida Atlantic University’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, published in the journal Neuropsychobiology, found that breastfeeding can have a positive effect on the moods of depressed mothers.

While the term “postpartum” is generally used to cover the first 4–6 weeks after birth, experts believe that postpartum depression can develop up to one year after giving birth. Also, perinatal depression can occur during as well as after pregnancy.

“The demonstrated advantages of breastfeeding are often explained in terms of its nutritional composition,” says study author Jillian Hardin, PhD, from the developmental psychophysiology lab at Florida Atlantic University. “Our research lab conceptualizes infant feeding as a dynamic, interactive environment shared between mother and infant.”

During the early postpartum period, mothers and infants spend a lot of time in feedings. So the reasoning behind the study was twofold: understanding whether the behavioral aspects of the breastfeeding environment are unique, and whether these unique benefits extend also to mothers exhibiting depressive symptoms.

About the Study

The researchers evaluated 113 mothers and their infants and assessed maternal depressive symptoms, feeding, and temperament/mood. They videotaped mother-infant dyads during feeding to assess affectionate touch patterns in both mother and baby (including stroking, massaging, and caressing initiated by either the mother or the infant) and collected electroencephalogram (EEG) activity patterns from infants at 1 and 3 months old.

The data collected from EEG activity showed that mother-infant affectionate touch differed depending on mood and whether babies were breastfed or bottle-fed.

Jillian Hardin, PhD

It is possible that the breastfeeding environment functions as a protective factor in the presence of postpartum depression.

— Jillian Hardin, PhD

“An unexpected finding in our research was related to the infant EEG patterns,” Hardin says. “Infants of mothers without depressive symptoms, regardless of feeding method, and infants of mothers with depressive symptoms who were breastfed all displayed normative developmental EEG patterns."

However, the infants of mothers who were depressed and formula-fed displayed brain activity patterns that diverged from the other groups of infants in a way that appeared dysregulated. "It is possible that the breastfeeding environment functions as a protective factor in the presence of postpartum depression," Hardin says. "However, more research is needed before we can make that conclusion.”

The Oxytocin Factor

Jessica Madden, MD, board-certified pediatrician and neonatologist and medical director of Aeroflow Breastpumps, wasn't surprised by the study findings. "It makes sense that the calmer and more peaceful a mother feels while breastfeeding, the higher the likelihood that she will touch, stroke, and be affectionate with her baby," she says.

Jessica Madden, MD

Just the simple act of having a newborn snuggle on one’s chest, without the anxiety and stress related to trying to successfully breastfeed, can do wonders for mothers’ mental health and well-being.

— Jessica Madden, MD

There's also the oxytocin factor—the so-called "love hormone" and one of the main hormones produced in mothers' bodies during breastfeeding. "It’s well known that oxytocin promotes feeling calm, wellness, and mother-infant bonding," Dr. Madden says. "So it also makes sense that breastfeeding moms would have less depressive symptoms while feeding their babies due to the 'surge' of oxytocin they experience."

Dr, Madden points out that the majority of mothers in the study were middle to upper-middle class, highly educated, and married. "This is not representative of today's average American mother," she says. "I would love to see the findings of the study replicated in a larger and more diverse sample of women."

Breastfeeding Can Be Challenging for Many New Moms

Of course, breastfeeding isn't a treatment for depression, and breastfeeding itself can be very challenging and therefore a huge source of stress for new moms. As a lactation consultant, Dr. Madden sees this firsthand. However, she's also witnessed great improvement in moms’ moods and overall well-being as lactation problems resolve and the mother-baby breastfeeding relationship improves.

If a mom is experiencing stress that's secondary to breastfeeding challenges, Dr. Madden encourages her to focus on having quality "skin-to-skin" time with her baby. "Just the simple act of having a newborn snuggle on one’s chest, without the anxiety and stress related to trying to successfully breastfeed, can do wonders for mothers’ mental health and well-being," she explains. "In many cases, this non-stressful 'skin-to-skin' time has led to a pretty rapid improvement in babies' ability to breastfeed."  

Jessica Madden, MD

In an ideal world, every breastfeeding mom experiencing difficulties would have easy access to a mental health specialist for support.

— Jessica Madden, MD

The recent study is further proof that there needs to be increased awareness of the link between breastfeeding problems and depressive symptoms.

For starters, this would enable maternal mental health providers to address this relationship when working with moms who are experiencing breastfeeding challenges. "In an ideal world, every breastfeeding mom experiencing difficulties would have easy access to a mental health specialist for support," Dr. Madden says.

In Dr. Madden's experience, it's common for new moms who are experiencing both breastfeeding problems and postpartum depression to stop exclusively breastfeeding. In this case, it may help to see that breastfeeding is not an "all or nothing" endeavor.

"There can be great benefits to small amounts of breastfeeding, even if it’s once or twice a day," Dr. Madden says. In fact, she personally experienced this with her secondborn. "I had to wean him earlier than I desired due to my intense work schedule when he was four months old, but was able to continue to nurse him every evening for several months afterward," she says. "Looking back, this nightly oxytocin 'burst' probably did wonders for my emotional well-being."

Jillian Harlin, PhD

In understanding the behavioral differences between feeding methods within the context of maternal depression, it opens the door to the development of future interventions designed to encourage healthy interactive patterns of depressed mothers and their infants.

— Jillian Harlin, PhD

For Hardin and her fellow researchers, the goal is simple—to increase awareness of the effects of even mild postpartum depression on both mother and infant. "Early interactive patterns between mother and infant, even in the context of feeding, influence infant development in both behavioral and physiological domains," she explains. "In understanding the behavioral differences between feeding methods within the context of maternal depression, it opens the door to the development of future interventions designed to encourage healthy interactive patterns of depressed mothers and their infants."

What This Means For You

It's important to know that you're not alone if you're experiencing symptoms of depression during pregnancy or after giving birth. Speak to your doctor about how you're feeling—they can recommend a treatment plan based on your symptoms. Antidepressant medication, support groups, and counseling are some of the recommended treatments for PPD.

If you're struggling with breastfeeding, you can get advice and support from groups like La Leche League and Breastfeeding USA—whether you're feeling depressed or not.

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4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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