I first suffered an episode of major depressive disorder (MDD) when I was seven years old. For the rest of my life, the symptoms of MDD have waxed and waned, but they never really went away. With my depression came a crippling anxiety that carried over into the social realm, where I was convinced I had no friends. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially since no one wants to be friends with the sad kid. I was bullied. I was anorexic and bulimic. I cut myself.
Things got better in college and graduate school, though the anxiety never left me. But I didn’t hit rock bottom until my first pregnancy. The hormones immediately plunged me into a major depression, complete with crippling panic attacks. I was finally treated with Zoloft, an antidepressant. My psychiatrist and I decided that when my son was born, I would continue the medication to prevent postpartum depression. So I found myself breastfeeding on an antidepressant.
Considering the myriad health benefits of breastfeeding, including building up your baby's immune system and decreasing their risk of childhood cancer, it never occurred to me not to breastfeed. But I also knew that for my own mental health, I had to stay on the Zoloft.
There's some controversy within the medical community about taking antidepressants during pregnancy, due to a handful of case studies that determined that some babies are less tolerant of antidepressants than others. Yet many doctors feel that certain antidepressants are fairly low-risk, and Zoloft happens to be one of them.
For me, it was a no-brainer that I would continue taking Zoloft while I breastfed. Zoloft ensured that I would keep feeling OK. I needed it. My son needed breastmilk. So I never really thought twice about it.
When I was pregnant with my second son, we added another antidepressant, Wellbutrin, into the mix. I did the research. While there was one report of a baby experiencing seizures after being breastfed by a mother taking Wellbutrin, with such a sample size the risk of that happening to my own baby seemed exaggerated. My doctor also had no issue prescribing it to me, so I had no problem taking it. Wellbutrin and Zoloft both made me feel better, and they made me feel more capable of parenting.
It's not uncommon for moms-to-be and nursing women to feel shame or stigma for taking antidepressants during pregnancy. Thankfully, no doctor has ever tried to shame me for my choice to nurse on antidepressants, for which I’m grateful. That said, I did take some precautions: I always tried to time the drugs around nursing sessions; I also knew when they were most likely to come through my milk, and attempted to avoid nursing during those times. But we nursed on demand, so there were times when my sons got a maximum dose of meds.
I don't always feel great about that, just as I don't feel great about the fact that I'm currently nursing my youngest child on several different psychiatric medications, including lithium. But these are the medications that keep me sane — and, perhaps even more importantly, they keep me happy.
I didn't want my children growing up with a depressed caregiver. And I wasn’t going to deny them the health benefits and the joys of breastfeeding. So I nursed on antidepressants.
We know the risks of growing up with a depressed parent: research shows that children who grow up with depressed parents are more likely to be depressed themselves, a risk that persists into middle age. Depressed parents are also less likely to respond to a child’s needs and cues, creating toddlers who are “defiant, negative, and refusing to accept parental authority."
I didn't want my children growing up with a depressed caregiver. Depressed parents are also less likely to respond to a child’s needs and cues, creating toddlers who are “defiant, negative, and refusing to accept parental authority.” I didn't want my children growing up with a depressed caregiver. And I wasn’t going to deny them the health benefits and the joys of breastfeeding. So I nursed on antidepressants.
I refuse to be shamed for the decisions I made, especially when I'm confident that those decisions were best for me, best for my children, and best for our family as a whole. My kids ingested trace amounts of antidepressants through my breastmilk, yet they managed to be happy, healthy, attachment-parented children who show no signs of depression themselves. That’s all a mother could ask for.