Depression medication and breastfeeding

Postpartum depression is a serious condition affecting millions of new moms each year, and many healthcare providers recommend depression medication to help combat it. However, we know that certain medications can cross into breast milk, so the question is, how does depression medication affect a breastfeeding baby?

This question is especially relevant for women who have depression or postpartum depression, two conditions that are often treated with depression medication. Recent research has outlined the negative impact that depression can have on mothers and their infants.

The prevalence of maternal depression among new mothers

After childbirth, many women experience what’s known as the “baby blues,” but this isn’t the same as postpartum depression and it usually doesn’t require medication. Postpartum depression can be diagnosed months after childbirth, lasts for a longer period of time, and involves thought patterns that can be extremely detrimental to the health of both mom and baby. About 1 in 7 new moms experience postpartum depression and these women are often prescribed medication for the condition.

Associated health risks for newborns

Untreated maternal depression can have a major effect on babies. Infants and young children whose mothers had untreated depression can show behavioral and cognitive development problems very early in life. Some of these problems include difficulties with self-regulation, difficulties paying attention, poor self-control, a tendency to withdraw, poor coping skills, and problems socializing with others.

Benefits of medication for maternal depression

For a woman with no history of psychiatric illness, talk therapy is usually the first option for treating postpartum depression, but therapy sometimes isn’t the best option. Talk therapy isn’t available everywhere, can be expensive, and takes a certain amount of time to produce results. Other times, it’s simply not effective, and another treatment option is needed.

Depression medication is also prescribed to women who don’t have depression but do have another psychiatric illness, including bulimia, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

This means that for lots of women who have a psychiatric illness or who won’t benefit from therapy or therapy alone, medication is a viable treatment option.

Is medication passed through breast milk? How much?

Depression medication does get passed to newborns through maternal breast milk. However, research shows that it doesn’t transfer in high amounts. By measuring the amount of the medication in infant serum – a vital component in an infant’s blood – experts have determined that medications the mother is taking can be found in breast milk, but in relatively safe amounts.

Depression medication while breastfeeding

Because there are so many benefits to breastfeeding, and because maternal depression has such a negative impact on infants, experts often recommend the following:

  • Healthcare providers should first try to treat a woman’s depression through therapy or other methods that don’t involve medication
  • If other methods don’t prove effective, healthcare providers should analyze a woman’s personal history, family history, and other individual factors on a case-by-case basis to assess the need for depression medication
  • If the provider determines that medication is necessary, he or she should prescribe one of the depression medications that have been shown to be compatible with breastfeeding, as there are a variety of depression medications that have already been tested
  • During check-ups, healthcare providers will check to ensure that the medication is producing the desired effect

The bottom line

By looking at the number of prescriptions that breastfeeding mothers received while breastfeeding, experts determined that many women actually stop their depression medication while breastfeeding. It’s likely that they do this out of fear that they’ll harm their baby by passing the medication through their breast milk.

These results speak measures about how committed mothers are to keeping their infants safe. But it also shows a worrisome trend in which women discontinue their treatment of postpartum depression, a very serious condition that can also affect the infant. The negative and long-lasting effects of maternal depression, combined with the overwhelmingly positive effects of breastfeeding, have been proven to be far more impactful than the possibility of medication getting passed through a mother’s breast milk.

While a woman’s treatment options for depression depend very much on her own individual factors, it is often considered safer for breastfeeding women to treat their depression through medication than to ignore the condition or to stop breastfeeding.

You should talk to your healthcare provider about his or her opinion about medication for postpartum depression.

  • “Postpartum depression facts.” NIMH. NIH Publication No. 13-8000 from National Institute of Mental Health, NIH, HHS, Jun 2016. Web.
  • “Postpartum Depression.” ACOG. FAQ091 from American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Dec 2013. Web.
  • Teresa Lanza di Scalea, Katherine L Wisner. “Antidepressant Medication Use during Breastfeeding.” Clin Obstet Gynecol. 52(3):483-497. Web. Sep 1 2010.
  • Katherine Stone. “Which Psychiatric Medications Are Safe During Breastfeeding?” PostpartumProgress. Postpartum Progress Inc., Oct 12 2011. Web.
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