By Sarah Long, IBCLC, Director of Clinical Operations, The Milk Bank
Breastfeeding benefits the body & mind The evidence is clear on the benefits of breastfeeding and human milk for infants. However, maternal health benefits of lactation cannot be underestimated. Many women have no idea of the protective health benefits breastfeeding has for mothers. These short- and long-term health benefits are primarily driven by powerful maternal hormones, working to heal both physically and mentally.
Breastfeeding challenges can certainly lead to anxiety and depression; however, it is not the cause. These challenges highlight how important support and education is for our families.
Leading health Psychologist and IBCLC, Dr. Kathleen Kendall-Tackett perfectly described this relationship, “it does not make sense for something so critical to the survival of our species to be harmful for mothers. And it is not.”
As the pandemic lingers, stress, mental health, and healing are common themes among breastfeeding and expectant parents. In that spirit, I’ll highlight three mental health benefits of breastfeeding and milk donation.
Possible protection against Postpartum Depression (PPD)
PPD is a form of major depression occurring up to four weeks post-delivery that may be caused by a rapid drop of hormones following childbirth. Postpartum depression can affect up to 20% of new mothers – with rates as high as 48% for mothers of pre-term infants!
The association between the hormones of lactation, oxytocin and prolactin can have powerful anxiolytic effects which is thought to account for breastfeeding’s protective factors against postpartum depression.
The American Academy of Pediatrics states, “If breastfeeding is helping a mom bond with her baby vs. contributing to her symptoms, then her PPD treatment can and should be built around protecting that breastfeeding relationship.”
Stress & Anxiety reduction
The good news is that breastfeeding lowers cortisol – the stress response hormone and produces oxytocin and prolactin that promote stress reduction and positive feelings in the nursing parent. Let’s now consider the NICU family! Families with preterm and medically fragile infants often have unexpected separation and stress impacting successful lactation and transition to parenthood.
Strategies shown to support families include family centered care practices that promote family autonomy and decision-making in the NICU. Dr. Meg Parker shares, “There are long-term health benefits to babies if their families can be less stressed and involved in their NICU care.” Family centered care is especially important for mothers who are pump-dependent, emphasizing a sense of responsibility that can help alleviate the sense of helplessness often described.
Implementation of donor milk programs in the NICU are also shown to benefit families as well as the infants receiving this lifesaving medical intervention: it serves to support breastfeeding goals and reduce stress by providing piece of mind that infants are receiving an exclusive human milk diet.
Healing after a loss
Bereaved mothers have described milk expression as an expression of grief. Common themes include validation as a mother, a connection to baby, and its conceptualization as a grief ritual that holds great value and meaning for many bereaved mothers.
Donation to a milk bank is one means of respecting the value assigned to lactation while allowing healing during the process. Providing women with a choice of what to do with their lactation can be empowering at a time of grief. As health care professionals, it is our responsibility to educate about lactation and milk donation options, so families can make an informed decision.
Breastfeeding is an expression of self-care. It is an investment in physical and mental health and an act of love parents can provide their infants and share with others when they donate milk.
Financial support allows The Milk Bank to provide important wrap around services like our Medical Relief Fund & bereavement program.
Breastfeeding is self-care!
Enabling women to meet their breastfeeding goals is therefore an integral part of women’s health care.
Breastfeeding is a (milk!) expression of self-care. An investment in physical and mental health, it is essentially it is a low-cost resource that can pay dividends (infant, family, community, societal, economic) for years to come – it is important to inform our community on this powerful health protection.
Our work at The Milk Bank goes beyond that of processing safe human milk. We support breastfeeding, families, and clinicians. Let’s take care of ourselves as we take care of each other and those we serve.