Research indicates breastfeeding difficulties may increase risk of postnatal depression

New research from Swansea University has found that mothers who stopped breastfeeding because they experienced difficulties were more likely to experience postnatal depression than those who stopped breastfeeding for other reasons such as feeling embarrassed or lifestyle choice.

‌‌The study published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing was led by the Department of Public Health, Policy and Social Sciences and explored the experiences of mothers with a baby aged 0 – 6 months old who had started breastfeeding at birth but stopped in the early weeks. It asked them their main motives for stopping and divided these into the following reasons:-

  • difficulty
  • pain
  • medical reasons
  • embarrassment
  • body image
  • lifestyle choice
  • dislike of feeding in front of other people

Baby with bottleIt found that although shorter breastfeeding duration increased the risk of postnatal depression, it was actually the reason for stopping that predicted a higher postnatal depression score. Specifically, mothers who said that they stopped breastfeeding due to pain or difficulty were more likely to have a higher depression score whereas stopping for other reasons did not increase risk of depression at all. Moreover, the greater the difficulty or pain experienced, the greater the risk of postnatal depression.


Dr Amy Brown, Associate Professor and Programme Director for the MSc Child Public Health who led the study said: “The findings are very interesting as we previously knew that a shorter breastfeeding duration was linked to a higher risk of postnatal depression but had not explored the mother’s experiences of stopping breastfeeding. The findings suggest that experiencing breastfeeding difficulties could predicts depression risk, rather than stopping breastfeeding itself. This could be because mothers feel that they had to give up before they were ready, whereas mothers stopping for other reasons may feel that there is a personal benefit to doing so. This really highlights the need to provide high quality care to breastfeeding mothers, rather than simply promoting the breast is best message and not following it up with the support that is needed.”

Professor Paul Bennett, Professor of Abnormal and Clinical Psychology noted:  “At this stage we only know that there is a relationship between breastfeeding difficulties and postnatal depression. We cannot tell whether breastfeeding difficulties increase risk of postnatal depression, or whether mothers with postnatal depression find breastfeeding more difficult. In either case our findings highlight the need to offer both practical and emotional support to new mothers to enable them to breastfeed as this may both protect infant and maternal health and maternal wellbeing.”

Dr Jaynie Rance, Associate Professor in Public Health added: “The Department of Health encourages mothers to breastfeed to reduce the risk of illness for both mother and baby. However lots of mothers are still reporting that they experience breastfeeding difficulties and cannot access the support that they need. At a time where cuts are being made across services we want to emphasise the importance of investing in breastfeeding as enabling more mothers to breastfeed without difficulty may both improve breastfeeding rates and lower rates of postnatal depression, which translates into saving money long term for the NHS”.

The research is published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing.