Survey shows 80% of parents say breastfeeding difficulties fuel depression
Leading Priory psychiatrist says: “Women need considerable practical and emotional support in the early days of breastfeeding to make it successful. Those who do not want to breastfeed must be listened to, respected and understood, rather than simply told 'breast is best'”
- According to a Priory survey of more than 1,000 parents, eight in 10 believe breastfeeding problems fuel depression in new mums when unsuccessful or painful
- Just one in five disagreed
- The figure was even high among men, with 77% saying they believed breastfeeding difficulties were a contributory factor to depression in women following birth
- Among women, the figure rose to 81%
The vast majority of parents believe that depression among new parents is fuelled by a difficulty among mothers to breastfeed.
There is little doubt that new mothers understand the benefits of breastfeeding, yet the UK remains at the bottom of the “league tables” in terms of the numbers of new mums who take up breastfeeding as well as the high level who stop soon after they have started.
Dr Kathryn Hollins, a UK expert in parent and child mental health who heads up the Priory’s new ‘family service’ at its Harley Street Wellbeing Centre, believes that to redress the balance, new mums need to be gently encouraged to explore all reasons as to why breastfeeding might not be working for them - and that an excessive amount of pressure, although well-intentioned, from health professionals and peers may do more harm than good.
Her comments follow news that a recent trial in parts of the North of England, offering women £200 in shopping vouchers as an incentive, saw a significant increase in breastfeeding. However, caution about the scheme has been voiced by some midwives, campaigners and celebrity “influencers”. Gill Walton, Chief Executive of the Royal College of Midwives, said: “Breastfeeding has to be something that a mother wants to do in the interest of the health and wellbeing of her baby.”
Echoing such concerns, an opinion poll commissioned by the Priory Group, the mental healthcare specialists, amongst more than 1,000 parents from across the UK, found that 81% of those who recognised this pressure to breastfeed thought that this was a contributory factor to depression in mums, where breastfeeding was painful or unsuccessful.
Dr Hollins said that with professional support and greater access to specialist services and talking therapies, many new mothers could overcome the barriers and enjoy a positive breastfeeding experience.
She said; “I am convinced that many mums would be breastfeeding their babies happily and for longer if early help from professionals and experienced mothers was available at the exact moments when mums are faced with a screaming, hungry baby who hasn’t quite worked out how to ‘latch on’. Practical help and emotional support is needed now. In the UK this doesn't usually happen. We set mums up to 'fail'.
“It's not uncommon for pregnant women to feel ambivalent towards, or against, breastfeeding. The key is to be courageous and ask, 'what are the reasons behind my negativity?' As parents we frequently endure emotional discomfort on behalf of our children; breastfeeding is important enough to mean it's worth working out your reasoning, despite the discomfort it may cause you. For example, for some, the bodily changes of pregnancy and the physical closeness of breastfeeding may feel unbearable perhaps due to an eating disorder history or other past issues.
“If so, specialist perinatal psychotherapy can transform these feelings and prepare women for motherhood.”
According to wider research, whilst 81% of new mothers have tried breastfeeding at some point, the UK has the lowest breastfeeding rate in the world, (just 25% at 6 months and 0.5% at 12 months). By comparison, in Scandinavia, 98% of women breastfeed immediately after birth and 80% are still doing so at six months.
A study published in the Journal of Maternal and Child Health supports the Priory’s findings about a link between depression and breast feeding “struggles”, reporting that those who planned to breastfeed but had not managed to, were 2.5 times more likely to develop postnatal depression, compared to those who hadn’t planned on breastfeeding.
The Priory Group, which runs the largest independent network of mental healthcare hospitals and clinics in the UK, is calling for greater understanding and support for new mums who experience difficulties when breastfeeding.
According to research, only 1-2% of women are physiologically unable to breastfeed, suggesting there are also psychological factors, as well as physical reasons such as mastitis.
But while society continues to urge women to breastfeed, women are frequently unable to access the emotional and practical support necessary to achieve this goal.
Dr Hollins said that the “scope of issues affecting a new mum’s ability to breastfeeding could be varied and complex:
- Life with a demanding and hungry new-born can be an emotional roller coaster - there can be great highs when everything’s going well as well as lows when things don’t go according to plan. If breastfeeding is part of the problem, then giving up might seem the solution to avoiding additional stress
- Despite the great strides made in promoting breastfeeding, some women still feel embarrassed or unwelcome in public places
- Although generally seen as positive and helpful, some women describe the hands-on approach of midwives and breastfeeding counsellors as crossing personal boundaries
- Breastfeeding can symbolise a loss of independence, particularly if the pregnancy or labour has been difficult. Some women – particularly if suffering from sleep deprivation and fatigue – describe breastfeeding as draining or literally “sucking their energy” away
- Much is made of breastfeeding being “a powerful symbol of a new role as a mother” but if it doesn’t happen, it can lead to great feelings of disappointment or of “failing” to live up to their own expectations”
Dr Hollins said: ”We know that once mum and baby are in the ‘groove’ of breastfeeding, it can be an immensely enjoyable time of intimacy and connection.
“I would therefore recommend to any new mum to proactively find out about breastfeeding support in her area, including breastfeeding cafes and drop-ins. It’s also vital to talk about breastfeeding struggles and not to be afraid of asking for help, whether from your midwife, GP or health visitor - or even being brave and requesting more specialist advice and support.
“Life does change – and, little by little, all new mums can become the mum they want to be for their children. And, if and when it feels right, that can certainly include successful breastfeeding.”
The Priory Group has opened the latest in a series of high-street Wellbeing Centres, in central London, to help people gain quick access to mental health treatment. The new central London clinic (located on Harley Street, W1) offers a parenthood, pregnancy and family service for antenatal and postnatal depression and anxiety, as well as other issues such as a traumatic birth and difficulty bonding. Psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists also treat a wide range of other mental health issues such as treatment for stress and addictions.
- Fieldwork period: 11-14 September 2017, among 1,002 parents of under-18s, of whom 452 were men
- Effect of financial incentives of breastfeeding, JAMA Paediatrics, December 2017, Clare Relton, PhD1; Mark Strong, PhD1; Kate J. Thomas, MA1; et al
Notes to editors
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About Priory Group
The Priory Group is the leading provider of behavioural care in the UK caring for around 30,000 people a year for conditions including depression, stress, drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders and self-harming. The Group is organised into three divisions – healthcare, education and children’s services, and adult care. The Priory Group is owned by NASDAQ-listed Acadia Healthcare, which is recognised as a global leader in behavioural health.