The bidirectional relationship between breastfeeding and mental health
Breastfeeding rates in the UK are among the lowest in the world, despite its well-known benefits to maternal and infant health. The impact of breastfeeding on women's mental health may contribute to this. This study aimed to better understand the bidirectional relationship between breastfeeding and maternal mental health.
Women aged 20–45 years who had attempted to breastfeed between 2018 and 2019 were recruited. A mixed-methods design encompassed two components; 109 participants completed an online questionnaire and 24 took part in telephone interviews, analysed using a thematic approach.
Five main themes were identified: pressure to breastfeed, provision of information and support, mixed impact on mental health, mental health impacting breastfeeding and attachment.
While a positive breastfeeding experience can lead to positive wellbeing, women highlighted a pressure to breastfeed that often led to negative wellbeing. Support and information are needed to promote mental health and longer breastfeeding duration, specifically for those mothers experiencing mental health difficulties.
Breastfeeding provides significant benefits for mothers, infants and society, yet breastfeeding rates in the UK are among the lowest in the world (McAndrew et al, 2012). Typically, in the UK, 80% of women initiate breastfeeding; however, exclusive breastfeeding rates are less than 50% by 6 weeks, and drop to less than 1% after 6 months (Renfrew et al, 2012; Nicholson and Hayward, 2021). The World Health Organization (WHO, 2022) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months, followed by breastfeeding alongside the introduction of solids up to and past 2 years old. Breastmilk provides protection from infection and disease, while also supporting physical and cognitive development (Victoria et al, 2016), and the maternal benefits include a lower risk of breast and ovarian cancer (Gonzalez-Jimenez et al, 2004; Ip et al, 2009).
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