Breastfeeding has a long list of benefits, from the antibodies your body makes especially for your baby, to the release of oxytocin and a chance to bond. And while there's absolutely nothing wrong with bottle-feeding or supplementing with formula (or choosing and/or using formula from day one!) there are more than a few mental health benefits of extended breastfeeding that nursing moms should absolutely be aware of.
Extended breastfeeding, according to Parents, is when a mom nurses beyond her child's first year of life and for as long as her and/or her child wants. According to KellyMom, while the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends moms breastfeed for two years, most moms in the United States stop breastfeeding their children before six months. A reported 81 percent of moms choose and/or are able to breastfeed initially, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but only 22 percent are exclusively breastfeeding by the six month mark. The sudden drop can be blamed on a variety of factors, according to USA Today, including a lack of postpartum support and paid maternity leave, the pump-and-work grind, breastfeeding pain, milk supply issues, and moms simply choosing what's best for them.
The Mayo Clinic recommends extended breastfeeding as long as you and your child want to continue. So while you should never feel pressured to nurse for a certain period of time, or at all, if you do choose and are able to extend your breastfeeding, here are some ways it might just positively impact your mental health:
You're Calmer In The Face Of Stress
Oxytocin is a pretty unique hormone that's released during breastfeeding. Not only does it help the uterus contract after delivery and shrink back down to pre-pregnancy size, but it reduces postpartum bleeding. In other words, according to Health Children, moms who breastfeed recover from childbirth quicker.
Oxytocin also, according to a the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), "makes the myoepithelial cells around the alveoli contract" and, in turn, "makes the milk that is already in the breast flow for the current feed, and helps the baby to get the milk easily."
The longer a mother breastfeeds, the more her body begins to anticipate feeds and, as a result, breastfeeding becomes easier and less stressful. In 1990, according to the American Psychological Association, "researchers discovered that breastfeeding women are calmer in the face of exercise and psychosocial stress than bottle-feeding mothers."
You're Less Likely To Be Anxious
It's not a secret that breastfeeding promotes a strong bond between mom and baby. Dr. William Sears, pediatrician and author of over 30 parenting books, says breastfeeding for any length of time promotes "oneness" between mother and child, which has benefits long after breastfeeding is over. Through breastfeeding, a mom learns to know and trust her baby's cues, according to Dr. Sears. That trust can help combat postpartum anxiety and the "new-mom worries" many parents face when they're caring for another human being for the first time. According to the Mayo Clinic, 89 percent of new parents find their minds racing and worrying about their babies. "Some worry is adaptive — anxiety is a natural response to protect one's baby, and often that's expressed with hyper-alertness and hyper-vigilance," Margaret Howard, Ph.D., director of postpartum depression at Day Hospital at Women & Infants' in Providence, tells Parents.
So if you can learn to trust your baby's cues and your ability to pick up on them, via extended breastfeeding, you can potentially combat any lingering anxiety about your abilities as a parent.
You Sleep Better
It may sound counter-intuitive (because who likes waking up in the middle of the night for another feeding?!) but breastfeeding helps new moms sleep. According to a 2007 study published in the U.S National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health found that, "Parents of infants who were breastfed in the evening and/or at night slept an average of 40-45 minutes more than parents of infants given formula. Parents of infants given formula at night also self-reported more sleep disturbance than parents of infants who were exclusively breastfed at night."
According to the Mental Health Foundation, "Poor sleep is linked to physical problems such as a weakened immune system and mental problems such as anxiety and depression."
It Sharpens Your Maternal Instincts
With extended breastfeeding, your emotional bond and maternal need to protect your baby gets stronger. According to Healthy Children, the more you breastfeed the more "mothering" behaviors occur. Of course, not every mother automatically feels ultra-protective — and there's nothing wrong with you if you don't — but breastfeeding, and especially extended breastfeeding, does help hone and amplify those instincts.
You're Less Likely To Suffer From Depression
According to the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), "Breastfeeding mothers are at lower risk of depression than formula-feeding mothers," and mothers who are depressed can actually benefit from the act of nursing. The same site reports that oxytocin — the hormone released during breastfeeding — has a natural calming effect on the mother and offers some protection against stress, and hormone prolactin — responsible for milk production — protects mothers from depression. Both hormones, according to WABA, also "reduce the body’s inflammatory response associated with depression."
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.