Does Breastfeeding Complicate Post Partum Depression?

BlogHer Original Post

Last week's BlogHer Backtalk asked the question, why can't we shut up about breastfeeding? To which I think the only sensible response is: BECAUSE.

The longer form of that answer is, I suppose, because it's about boobs, which itself expands into a longer answer still: because it's about boobs, which means that it's about our womanhood, and about the relationship of our motherhood to our womanhood and vice-versa and so it is, to make a very serious understatement, really pretty loaded. It's loaded because it speaks to the biology of motherhood and womanhood, and so to what we often think of as the fundamentals of motherhood and womanhood, and everything in between. We're built to nurse, right? And yet we live in a world where that's sometimes controversial. Are boobs for sex or for nursing or for both? Does one trump the other? Are boobs that don't nurse less womanly than boobs that do? Are boobs that nurse less sexy than boobs that don't? Are you less of a woman, less of a mother if you don't nurse? Are you a boob-flashing harpy if you do? It's confusing in a way that unsettles our ideas and feelings about what it means to be a woman and a mother.

Which is why we shouldn't be surprised when the whole thing messes some of us up.

Katherine Stone of Post-Partum Progress held an online rally for moms' mental health this past Mother's Day weekend (in which yours truly was a participant), and breastfeeding was one of the issues that came up in the various 'Letters To New Moms.' Which was interesting to me, because I'd never really thought about the relationship of breastfeeding to post-partum depression. Which itself was also interesting, seeing as how the challenges of breastfeeding are something that I always include of my descriptions of what I call The Dark Days of PPD after the births of both my children. Pain and anxiety around breastfeeding were absolutely a factor in my depression. I'd just never really explicitly articulated that to myself.

Therese Borchard, who writes Beyond Blue at Beliefnet, articulates it perfectly in her Letter to New Moms:

I tried so hard to do the right thing for everyone else but me. I weaned myself off of my antidepressant because I wanted to breastfeed, to give my infant the best possible start … the golden
stuff right out of the boob. So my lactating breasts and I were on
call, with no substitute available, for months and months and more
months … long enough for me to make the walk of shame from the
maternity ward to the psych ward.

I don’t think I closed my eyes for longer than three hours for
four years. And I am still paying the price for that carelessness: my severe mood disorder, my pituitary tumor, my hormonal imbalance … all of them, I believe, resulted from my mission to be the self-sufficient martyr mom.

I too refused to take anti-depressants, the first time around. Even thought my doctor told me that they were safe for breastfeeding, I wasn't taking any chances: my boob juice was going to be pure. And so I slogged through the difficult first weeks of breastfeeding (my god, the pain) in a fog of depression with nothing but a few phone calls with a psychiatric nurse and umpteen visits with a lactation consultant (and the world's most supportive husband, which is probably worth an infinite supply of Ativan) to pull me through. It was hard. It was really hard. I'm glad that I breastfed my daughter, but if I could do those weeks and months differently, I totally would. I don't know whether that would mean stopping nursing, or just supplementing, or being willing to take the meds. I just know that I wish I'd done something more to cut through the dark.

Therese offers the advice that I wish had been put forward more forcefully to me: "If you need to, by all means supplement your breastfeeding so that you can take a break, so you can get eight hours of sleep at least once a week."

(For the record, I tried this the second time around, with my son, after my excellent psychiatrist exhorted me to not be afraid to put him down already, but he refused the bottle. Which I took as a sign from the gods that I was meant to be tormented.)

(Do not, however, let this stop you from trying. Jasper eventually took a bottle, and I eventually slept. 10 months later, but still. Never say never.)

I'll always insist that breast is best. But that only holds in the arena of infant nutrition, and sometimes, you have give a little in one arena to keep a hold of things in another. Bottle-feeding and formula might not be as super-awesome-fantastic as breastmilk, but they're certainly pretty good, and if it comes to a toss-up between giving your child the best nutrition and losing your mind, or giving your child excellent nutrition and maintaining your sanity, well, the choice should be pretty straightforward. You can't take care of that baby if you're sobbing, helpless, in a corner. Better to get some rest and slip her an occasional - even a frequent - bottle than to sacrifice yourself at the altar of Breast Is Best.

Breast is best, but healthy, happy moms are better.

Catherine Connors blogs as Her Bad Mother and now, also, as Their Bad Mother at Beliefnet. She's worried that her excessively breastfed children might be forming a militia. A PRINCESS militia. AWESOME.




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