Breastfeeding ‘halves risk of postnatal depression’

Breastfeeding means you're less likely to get PND – but, if you want to breastfeed but can't, your depression risk doubles, new study suggests

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Breastfeeding can halve your risk of getting postnatal depression (PND), according to a new UK study of 14,000 mums.

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But, in a cruel twist, the study also suggests that, if you plan to breastfeed when you’re pregnant and then discover you’re unable to do so, your risk of getting PND more than doubles.

Almost 75% of us start off breastfeeding our babies, according to the latest Department of Health figures, but, within 8 weeks, only 47% of are still going. And it’s this breastfeeding failure rate – the biggest in Europe – that makes the findings of the new, large-scale Cambridge University study so important.

That’s because,say the researchers, if so many of us are struggling to breastfeed, and failure to breastfeed is linked to a higher risk of PND, then pregnant women and new mums need a lot more support. About 13% of us develop PND in the first 14 weeks after childbirth, and up to 1 in 5 of is thought to develop depressive symptoms in pregnancy.

The study, published in the journal Maternal and Child Health and based on an analysis of data from 13,998 births in the south-west of England, suggests a 50% reduction in the risk of PND if they a new mum breastfeeds – but also highlights that the risk of depression is highest among new mums women who want to breastfeed their babies but can’t.

“It is good to tell mothers it’s right to breastfeed,” says study researcher Dr Maria Iacovou. “Breastfeeding has well-established benefits for babies, in terms of their physical health and brain development. And now our study shows that it also benefits the mental health of mothers.”

Many mums will take to breastfeeding pretty easily, Dr Iacovou says, particularly if there’s someone with the training, the skills, and the time to help them get it right in the early days. 

“But,” she adds, “there will still be some mothers who want to breastfeed and who don’t manage to. It’s clear that these mothers need a great deal of understanding and support; there is currently hardly any skilled specialist help for these mothers, and this is something else that health providers should be thinking about.”

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