The XX Factor

The Breastfeeding Barometer

Photo by TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

Every new mom has heard that “breast is best.” Breastfeeding your baby is “natural.” It has health benefits for both of you. And it’s “easy and economical,” at least, if it works for you. For plenty of women, nursing isn’t easy, and even for those who don’t struggle (struggle less might be a better way to put it), the emotional factor—how you feel about breastfeeding—is nearly as important to mother and baby’s well-being as any milk we produce.

Two new studies reflect the way the emotional component of breastfeeding can carry over into every element of new motherhood. Researchers from the University of North Carolina found a “tremendous clinical overlap” between women who were struggling with breastfeeding and women who were depressed. And it wasn’t just nursing difficulties that increased depression rates. Women who reported “disliking” breastfeeding were 1.42 times more likely to meet the criteria for “major depression” two months after giving birth. The study’s authors hope their research encourages both health care providers and new mothers to take nursing difficulties seriously. “They shouldn’t just say ‘I’m going to power through this and snap out of it,’ ” says co-author Alison Stuebe.

How women feel about breastfeeding also affects how long we do it. As an observation, that’s obvious, but another study links the way we feel about pumping, and how we pump, to whether women who have initial difficulty nursing are likely to still be breastfeeding two months later. Women randomly assigned to use an electric pump to exress milk for a baby who was having trouble latching or sucking in the first hours after their baby’s birth were less likely to continue nursing than women assigned to hand express. Researchers were unsure why, but noted that women in the hand expression group reported “greater comfort” hand expressing when others were present, as they’re likely to be in a hospital setting. They also reported that both groups produced a small (but appropriate for the baby’s age) volume of milk, which “may have seemed more normal to the hand expressers but inadequate to those using the machine’s large collecting cup.” Since “inadequate” aptly describes the feeling of many new mothers shortly after birth, it makes sense that women attaching that feeling to pumping milk might not be as inclined to continue.

Anyone who’s given birth in the past decade would probably agree that any additional attempts to encourage women to nurse would just be redundant. The pressure to nurse is as strong as the emotions it arouses in us. But work on the ways women feel about nursing, and how, in turn, those feelings are linked to our ability to make nursing work, can help women who want to nurse without increasing the pressure on women for whom breastfeeding isn’t the right choice—which is research that could make new motherhood a little easier all around.