Surprising ways breastfeeding can support your mental health

Breastfeeding is a big part of many families’ early parenting adventures. It can also have different types of impact on mood at different times, and it can impact one woman very differently from another.

Breastfeeding’s positive impact on mental health

Breastfeeding can have a positive impact on mood. While your baby is nursing, your body releases hormones that make you feel happy and closer to your little one. Prolactin and oxytocin are two of the most significant hormones involved in breastfeeding.

  • Prolactin: This hormone helps your body produce breast milk, and it makes you feel more relaxed while you breastfeed. 
  • Oxytocin: Also called the ‘love hormone,’ oxytocin is a hormone that gets released when you do things that make you feel good, like cuddling, hugging, or kissing. It also gets released when a baby is breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding is also one of many great ways to kickstart early parent-child bonding.

Breastfeeding as a stressor

Major stressors of any kind can contribute to postpartum depression, and problems with breastfeeding can cause stress and sadness. It can feel like there’s a lot of pressure to breastfeed, and when it doesn’t go as planned, it can feel like a failure – which is why it’s important to remember that there’s so much more to being a good parent than breastfeeding.

Weaning and mental health

Mood changes associated with weaning are normal, up to a certain point. In addition to the emotional impact weaning can have, weaning causes yet another shift in hormones, with the loss of the regular release of prolactin and oxytocin that comes with breastfeeding.

Weaning goes smoothly for most families, but it’s also not uncommon for new moms to feel inexplicably sad or irritable once they begin to wean their babies off breast milk. 

Many women aren’t emotionally affected by weaning, but some – especially women who have experienced depression before, or who have a family member who struggled with it – can experience depressive symptoms when they start to wean their baby, or even in the months following weaning. This could be due to the hormone fluctuations associated with weaning, as well as the social and environmental changes.

For new moms who are having trouble with weaning, there are a few things to do to manage moods during this time.

  • Don’t wean too abruptly: When you start weaning, if you have the chance, try to start by replacing one feeding per week. This way, your prolactin and oxytocin levels can decrease a little more gradually.
  • Get proper exercise, nutrition, and sleep: Maintaining other aspects of your well-being is important. Though it may be difficult to find the time for self care with a little one, getting enough of all three of these things will help your body keep producing the different hormones it needs to support you and your baby.
  • Get your happy hormones in other ways: Breastfeeding isn’t the only thing that stimulates feel-good hormones. Watch or read something funny, do some deep breathing exercises, listen to music that you like, hug your partner, or spend time with friends or loved ones. Basically, do other things that make you happy so that your body releases the hormones you would normally get during breastfeeding.
  • Speak with a lactation consultant: Internationally board certified lactation consultants (IBCLCs) are great resources for breastfeeding support and guidance. Their visits are even covered by many insurance providers! Check with your prenatal provider or pediatrician’s office about whether they have a lactation consultant on staff. You can also find breastfeeding specialists near you on the website for La Leche League or ZipMilk.
  • Ask for help if it gets serious: If you suspect you might be dealing with postpartum depression, or if you’re not sure but have been feeling significantly impacted by your moods, don’t hesitate to speak to a provider about the possibility of a depression diagnosis. It’s not abnormal to experience symptoms of depression 6, 8, or 10 months after childbirth, and your provider is the best person to help you start feeling better.

In the meantime, know that for the moms who experience sadness around this time that’s related to weaning, most of their symptoms usually go away in a couple of weeks. Sadness that continues longer than this may be a sign of PPD, rather than something related to weaning.

Read more
  • Brylin Highton. “Weaning as a Natural Process.” Leaven. 36(6): 112-114. Web. Jan 2001.
  • Altemus, M. et al. “Suppresion of hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal axis responses to stress in lactating women.” J Clin Endocrinal Metab. 80:2954. Web. 1995.
  • Alicia Dermer. “A well-kept secret: Breastfeeding’s Benefits to Mothers.” New Beginnings. 18(4)124-127. Web. Jul-Aug 2001.
  • NE Wight. “Failed lactation and perinatal depression: common problems with shared neuroendocrine mechanisms?” J Womens Health (Larchmt). 21(3):264-72. Web. Mar 2012.
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