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Can Depression Affect Breastfeeding? An Expert Explains

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As any new mom knows, there are myriad factors that can affect how well breastfeeding will go. Mastitis, low milk supply, a demanding work schedule — all of these things can have a serious impact on nursing. But what about a woman's mental health? Can depression affect breastfeeding?

Diane DiTomasso PhD, RN specializes in lactation, and she had much to say on the subject. For starters, she tells Romper that women who have general depression are more likely to develop postpartum depression. And PPD can, unsurprisingly, have many adverse effects on nursing. "Multiple studies have shown that postpartum depression interferes with breastfeeding," she says. "Postpartum women who suffer from depression are thus less likely to breastfeed, and they typically breastfeed for a shorter duration than women who are not depressed."

So regular depression actually increases a new mom's chances of developing PPD. PPD can then in turn lead to moms wanting to cut nursing short, or to not wanting to nurse period.

Interestingly, on the flip-side, DiTomasso says breastfeeding can actually have a positive effect on depression symptoms. "There is some evidence that breastfeeding protects against postpartum depression, or can assist in a swifter recovery from symptoms," says DiTomasso. Which sounds a bit like a snake eating-its-tail kind of situation: nursing could make a new mom feel better, but if she's already suffering from PPD, she likely isn't going to feel like doing the thing that might improve her symptoms.

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DiTomasso goes on to say that the risk of developing PPD actually increased for women who had disappointing experiences with nursing. "The lowest risk of PPD has been found among women who had planned to breastfeed, and who had actually breastfed their babies, while the highest risk was found among women who had planned to breastfeed and had not gone on to breastfeed." This idea was echoed in an article on Self, which reported that sometimes the pressure and anxieties surrounding nursing can lead to a depression all its own.

For some new moms, there is the added factor of medication to consider. If you're someone who has long taken medication for her depression, you may find yourself weighing whether or not to take antidepressants while you nurse. While many doctors believe the benefits of taking helpful medications far outweigh the risks, there unfortunately haven't been many long-term studies on the subject, as the New York Times recently reported.

One thing is clear: the relationship between depression and breastfeeding can be complicated. But no matter the situation, any new mom who feels she might be struggling with depression should be sure to seek out the necessary help. Depression symptoms can range from loss of appetite, to excessive crying, to extreme mood swings, to just general feelings of hopelessness.

"Women should be encouraged to seek treatment for depressive symptoms and/or problems with breastfeeding," says DiTomasso. "Postpartum depression is often treated with psychotherapy (also called talk therapy or mental health counseling), medication or both. If desired, lactation support can also be provided to help support breastfeeding."