Many factors in breastfeeding can have a positive or negative effect on your mental health.
If you’re a new parent, you’re likely experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions. From hormonal changes to sleep deprivation to feeding choices for your baby, your life — and emotions — may seem to be all over the place.
How you choose to feed your baby can affect your mental wellness, and breastfeeding can have a positive or negative effect on your mental health.
For example, reaching breastfeeding goals can make you feel great. But struggling to keep your supply up along with the feedings in the middle of the night may trigger negative feelings.
Remember, your feeding choices don’t make you a bad or good parent. You’ll be able to bond with your child, no matter how you choose to feed them.
The way breastfeeding affects your mental health is complicated, according to a 2020 review. The effects depend on many factors, including:
- the way you intended to feed your child
- if you struggle with supply issues
- if you or your baby has a medical condition that makes breastfeeding difficult or not recommended
- the amount of support you have at home and at work
- the pressure some new parents may feel from the “breast is best” movement
Physiological responses can also impact the mental health of a breastfeeding parent.
Breastfeeding can not only be an opportunity for bonding, but it can also boost confidence in your parenting skills.
Breastfeeding your baby can be especially positive for mental wellness if you:
- breastfeed your baby exclusively for at least the first 6 months
- continue to breastfeed for a year
- have enough breastmilk supply
- have support both at home and at work
On the other hand, if you want to breastfeed but find you can’t for any reason, it may have a negative effect on your mental health.
Some breastfeeding parents deal with a state of intense dysphoria immediately after breastfeeding. This is known as dysphoric milk ejection reflex (D-MER). D-MER may be related to the body’s reaction to hormones released by breastfeeding.
Dysphoria is characterized by general:
Breastfeeding can have mental health benefits for you and your baby.
For the breastfeeding parent
Psychological benefits for the breastfeeding parent can include:
- increased feelings of affection
- bonding with your baby
reducedphysiological and social stress
For the baby, psychological benefits from breastfeeding can include:
- better cognitive performance
- less fussiness during infancy
- lowered levels of stress and avoidance behaviors
- lower risk of severe depression in adulthood
While breastfeeding may have some psychological benefits, more research on the complexities of the breastfeeding relationship is needed to improve support.
Some parents may find that breastfeeding can contribute to feeling:
If you find that this is true for you, remember these feelings don’t make you a bad parent.
Postpartum depression (PPD) and breastfeeding
There may be a complex connection between breastfeeding and postpartum depression (PPD).
A 2014 study links postpartum depression with parental intention and ability to breastfeed. Researchers found that parents who wanted to breastfeed and were able to had the lowest rates of PPD, but those who wanted to breastfeed but weren’t able to had the highest.
Another study from 2016 describes how postpartum depression may contribute to a person deciding to stop breastfeeding early. Several factors can contribute to stress and depression for the breastfeeding parent.
Pressure to breastfeed and postpartum depression
The pressure to breastfeed may also play a role in postpartum depression.
Medical professionals and organizations, such as the
Milk supply issues
The pressure surrounding breastfeeding doesn’t end at the pressure to breastfeed alone. You may feel stress and pressure over milk supply difficulties.
Many parents stress about increasing their milk production. This may be especially true for parents of babies who are gaining weight slowly.
If you’re exclusively breastfeeding your baby, you likely aren’t getting a lot of sleep.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of a postpartum mood disorder, your therapist or doctor may ask you:
- What parts of parenthood are you enjoying?
- Which parts of parenthood increase feelings of depression and anxiety?
If breastfeeding might be causing these feelings, your doctor or therapist may suggest stopping to help treat PPD.
When you start weaning your baby, you may experience mental health changes that can range from mild to more severe.
How it affects parents
As you stop breastfeeding, you may also experience a change in hormone levels. The changes in hormone levels can trigger:
You may feel like your baby no longer needs you, and you may feel a sense of loss due to the change.
How it affects babies
Breastfeeding provides emotional support to your baby. While you feed them, they get cuddled, which helps them feel safe and secure.
As you wean your baby, they may experience some stress if they don’t get as much cuddle time. To help alleviate your baby’s stress, consider:
- rocking your baby more
- giving them a pacifier
- doing skin-to-skin contact
- creating a new bedtime routine
- giving them a teething ring
- distracting them during times that they want to nurse
You may choose to wean intentionally instead of waiting for cues that your baby is ready to move on from breastfeeding.
Some reasons breastfeeding parents might choose to intentionally wean include:
- persistent nipple pain
- low milk supply
- difficulty with infant latch
- societal factors, such as limited access to paid maternity leave or barriers to breastfeeding and pumping milk at work
- postpartum depression (PPD)
- concerns about the effects of certain medications on their babies, especially antidepressants
- body dysmorphia and concerns about how breastfeeding might affect their body
The term “baby-led weaning” describes responding to behavioral cues from your baby that they may be developmentally ready to stop or slow down nursing and transition to eating solid or pureed foods.
Baby-led weaning may have benefits for your baby and family. For example, it can:
- help your baby learn developmental skills around eating, such as self-regulation around fullness and motor skills
- introduce your baby to diverse foods, tastes, and textures
- save time and money
- help your child learn social skills, such as eating together at family mealtimes
- be fun for babies to explore foods
Many pediatricians recommend waiting until your baby is 6 months old to begin baby-led weaning, but this largely depends on your child’s development and readiness.
Signs your baby may be ready for baby-led weaning include:
- sitting up without support
- reaching for objects and bringing them to their mouth
- showing interest in foods
- grabbing or reaching for food
- making chewing movements
In general, weaning your baby from breastfeeding is a safe process.
If you’re replacing breast milk with other drinks and with solid foods, your baby will not likely have any issues with getting enough food and water. Reducing breast milk slowly can help with this transition and prevent any physical effects.
Consider contacting your pediatrician if your baby’s sleep cycle is disrupted for 1 or more weeks after weaning, or if your baby is not wetting and soiling diapers as frequently.
For moms, reducing breastfeeding gradually and slowly can help prevent:
- breast engorgement
- blocked milk ducts
Breastfeeding can lead to several mental health issues, including:
- increased stress
If you find yourself struggling with some of these complications, the following tips may be helpful.
Try to ignore criticism
From strangers to family members, many will offer their opinion — and criticism — on what’s best for your baby.
If you face regular criticism over breastfeeding, try to focus on what you know. This can help reinforce the reasons you chose to do it in the first place.
If you feel comfortable, you may find that educating your friends and family about the reasoning behind the feeding choices for your baby can help stop criticism.
Lifestyle changes to manage stress
You may feel a lot more stress when breastfeeding. Leaning into some lifestyle changes to manage stress may help, such as:
- taking a break, like walking away for a few minutes when you feel frustrated or asking for help when you need it
- exercising when it’s safe
- practicing deep-breathing exercises
- talking to friends, family, and other supports in your life
Sleeping when your baby does
Sleep deprivation can be a serious problem when you’re breastfeeding. But you can take steps to help mitigate exhaustion, like:
- sleeping when your baby does
- putting off some chores
- asking for help from your partner, family, or friends
If breastfeeding your baby isn’t working out for any reason, give yourself permission to not feel guilty.
A pediatrician or your obstetrician can recommend a formula, as well as how to safely supplement or formula-feed your baby, so they get the nutrition they need.
Breastfeeding can be a positive experience for you and your baby. However, there’s no shame if you’re struggling with:
- sleep deprivation
- other negative feelings surrounding the experience
Remember, if breastfeeding makes you feel depressed or anxious, it’s okay to take care of yourself first. Getting help for your mental health is beneficial for you and your whole family, including your baby.
If you or your baby is having trouble with breastfeeding in any way — including negatively affecting your mental wellness or triggering PPD — consider reaching out to your doctor, pediatrician, or therapist.
Check out Psych Central’s guide to seeking mental health help if you don’t know where to begin.
Your therapist, doula, or OB-GYN can also help connect you with a certified lactation consultant who can guide you through breastfeeding and weaning. If you’re in the United States, you can also use Breastfeeding USA to find a consultant.
If you prefer a support group, you can consider asking your doctor or doula for information on local breastfeeding and parenting support groups.