If you're pregnant or new mom, you've probably heard about the many ways breastfeeding can benefit your baby. You might be surprised to learn, however, that you can benefit from nursing, too. In fact, there are more than a few mental health benefits of breastfeeding, even if you only nurse for a few months.
One key to feeling the mental health benefits of breastfeeding, it seems, lies in your own intentions to breastfeed and ability to meet your own breastfeeding goals. According to a 2015 study, published in the journal Maternal and Child Health, new moms who planned to breastfeed and were able to do so successfully had the lowest incidence of postpartum depression (PPD). This protective effect was the strongest after just two months of breastfeeding and diminished over time, which means that even a couple of months of breastfeeding can help protect against PPD if nursing was a part of your postpartum plan. This connection between breastfeeding and maternal mental health is likely, and at lest in part, hormonal, too. Because breastfeeding involves oxytocin — a hormone associated with stress-relief and love — breastfeeding may have a relaxing effect on new moms, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), enabling them to chill out during and after feeding time, and even get more sleep.
While how you feed your baby is entirely personal and depends on so many factors, if you plan to breastfeed or are considering giving it a try, know that breastfeeding for even a few months can improve your mental health. Here's how:
As health psychologist and international board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) Kathleen Kendall-Tackett told Empowher.com, breastfeeding can reduce stress for many new parents. That impact is largely due to hormones involved in lactation, like oxytocin, which can make you feel warm and fuzzy about your baby and calm you down. Incidentally, the same hormone can be inhibited by high levels of stress, reports the WHO, which is why some people experience a reduced milk supply when they are stressed out.
According to a 2015 study published in the International Journal of Nursing Studies, moms who primarily breastfed their babies at 6 months had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than those who primarily formula-fed their babies.
This is not to say that breastfeeding isn't stressful, because for many mom sit is, but it also seems to have a built-in stress-relief mechanism that can help you relax.
As Laura Viehmann, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at Brown University, told BabyCenter, breastfeeding can also make you feel sleepy. It turns out that the same hormone that causes your milk ejection reflex — oxytocin — also causes a breastfeeding mom to relax and feel like taking a nap, which in turn helps breast milk flow. The best part? This hormone is released whether it's your first or thousandth time breastfeeding.
As any new mom can tell you, how much sleep you get in your baby's first few months seems to directly impact your mental wellbeing. Unfortunately, sleep is also hard to come by when you're postpartum and caring for another human being. You might be interested to know that according to a 2007 study published in the Journal of Perinatal and Neonatal Nursing, parents who breastfed their babies slept longer and better — an average of 40-45 minutes more and with fewer disruptions — than parents who formula-fed their babies.
Protection From Postpartum Depression
According to a study published in the journal Maternal and Child Health, one important health benefit of breastfeeding for moms is protection from PPD. Moms who plan to breastfeeding and are successful in doing so were 50 percent less likely to have PPD than moms who didn't plan to breastfeed.
On the other hand, mothers who wanted to breastfeed, but didn't meet their breastfeeding goals, were twice as likely to have PPD. In other words, providing breastfeeding support for women who want to breastfeed, and mental health care for all new moms regardless of how they choose and/or are able to feed their babies, is vital.