New Study Suggests Breastfeeding May Reduce Chances of Postpartum Depression

Mother breastfeeding

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Key Takeaways

  • Postpartum depression is a significant and underrecognized health problem.
  • Breastfeeding may reduce your risk for postpartum depression.
  • The longer you breastfeed, the further you may reduce your risk. 

Breastfeeding may reduce the risk for postpartum depression (PPD), according to a new study. The study found that breastfeeding makes you less likely to suffer from PPD and that longer durations of breastfeeding further reduced the risk.

Up to 17% of people who are postpartum suffer from PPD, and the disease is considered both underrecognized and undertreated. Babies whose mothers suffer from PPD tend to cry more and have sleep problems and difficulty with temperament.

Later in life, these children may have more behavior problems. Further, parents who suffer from PPD are at an increased risk of suicide.

Knowing more about how breastfeeding may play a role in reducing the risk of PPD indicates a need for more breastfeeding support, such as accessible lactation consultants and increased breastfeeding education. "Those who breastfeed appear to have a better response to stressful situations, sleep more and better, and have a feeling of accomplishment," Kerry-Anne Perkins, MD, an OBGYN on the medical review board of Women’s Health Interactive. 

Kerry-Anne Perkins, MD, OBGYN

Those who breastfeed appear to have a better response to stressful situations, sleep more and better, and have a feeling of accomplishment.

— Kerry-Anne Perkins, MD, OBGYN

About the Study

The researchers gathered data on 29,682 American women from 26 states. This was the first study of its kind to look at data from such a large and representative sample. 

People who were breastfeeding at the time of the data collection were less likely to experience PPD. The findings also indicated that longer breastfeeding duration was inversely associated with lower risks of PPD.

The idea that breastfeeding may have an effect on PPD has merit. PPD is thought to be caused in part by sensitivity to hormone fluctuations, and breastfeeding is a hormone-run phenomenon associated with feel-good bonding hormones.

“There may be a hormonal component to this as prolactin, oxytocin, estrogen, cortisol, and progesterone hormones fluctuate a lot during the postpartum period,” notes Dr. Perkins.

The findings suggest that breastfeeding has a significant role in reducing your chances of developing PPD, a disorder that has a significant effect on new parents and their babies. There are many reasons to choose to breastfeed, and this may be an added motivation to make this choice.

Knowing how breastfeeding affects your chance of suffering from PPD may influence parents to choose to breastfeeding over formula, or it may influence them to wait longer before weaning your baby. This knowledge may also motivate parents to seek help in getting started with breastfeeding, should they face challenges.

Fed Is Best

Not everyone can or wants to breastfeed, and this decision is best made with as much information as possible about the benefits and costs. This study offers an additional benefit that may help parents make their decision, especially since PPD can lead to early weaning.

It is not always possible to breastfeed, even if you want to. If this happens to you, know that the best thing a parent can do is feed the baby, whether that’s breastmilk, formula, or a combination of the two.

“For some women experiencing postpartum depression, breastfeeding can be viewed as an added stressor,” explains Deedee Franke R.N., BSN, IBCLC, a certified lactation consultant and nurse who works as an in-hospital lactation consultant, assessing the physical and mental health status of new mothers who experience breastfeeding problems. “It is important that the mom or her family and friends reach out to her healthcare provider to assess the best approach to helping a mom who is suffering. [Her healthcare provider can] help make a decision of whether breastfeeding should continue."

Breastfeeding may decrease your risk of developing PPD, but not doing so does not mean you will definitely suffer from it. "While there are many benefits to breastfeeding, at the end of the day ‘fed is best,’" emphasized Dr. Perkins. "There is no shame in choosing alternative methods to feed your baby."

Kerry-Anne Perkins, M.D, OB/GYN

While there are many benefits to breastfeeding, at the end of the day ‘fed is best.’ There is no shame in choosing alternative methods to feed your baby.

— Kerry-Anne Perkins, M.D, OB/GYN

Coping With Postpartum Depression

PPD affects a significant amount of postpartum parents but it is curable. Treating your PPD will help you bond with your baby and improve their development.

There are several factors that may increase your risk of developing PPD. If you have a history of depression, suffered from anxiety while pregnant, or if you don’t have a strong support system, such as an involved partner or other family members to help you, you may be more likely to suffer from PPD after your baby is born.

If you experience appetite changes, decreased energy, feelings of worthlessness, an inability to focus, sleep disturbances, or if you have thoughts of suicide, reach out to a healthcare provider right away. PPD has nothing to do with your worth as a parent. The best thing you can do for your baby and for yourself is to get help.

What This Means For You

Breastfeeding has many benefits for both the parent and their baby. Planning to breastfeed and relying on professionals for help when it’s a struggle may help to reduce your risk of developing PPD. If you have a history of depression, you may be at a higher risk of getting PPD. Breastfeeding offers an added layer of protection to help lessen that risk. 

If you cannot or choose not to breastfeed, that is completely OK. When it comes to nourishing your little one, fed is best, be it from a bottle or breast. Pay attention to your mental health and reach out to a healthcare provider if you struggle with feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness after giving birth. PPD is common and treatable, and it does not reflect your value as a parent.

7 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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By Elisa Cinelli
Elisa is a well-known parenting writer who is passionate about providing research-based content to help parents make the best decisions for their families. She has written for well-known sites including POPSUGAR and Scary Mommy, among others.