Breastfeeding Medicine

Physicians blogging about breastfeeding

Does breastfeeding prevent postpartum depression?

with 10 comments

It would be great if the answer were an unequivocal “Yes!” Postpartum depression, or PPD, is one of the most common complication of childbirth, affecting about 1 in 10 new moms, with devastating consequences.

A number of researchers have reported less depression among moms who are breastfeeding, compared with moms who are bottle-feeding. These findings have even led one team of scientists to put forward a theory that bottle-feeding mothers experience grief from not breastfeeding that’s similar to mothers who have had a stillbirth.

It’s a compelling theory, but it rests on tenuous evidence. The problem is that the overwhelming majority of studies looking at breastfeeding and depression are cross-sectional. This means that the researchers collected information on infant feeding and maternal mood at the same time.  In this type of study, it’s impossible to tell whether depressed moms wean earlier, or moms who wean earlier develop depression.

Researcher Cindy Lee Dennis reviewed 49 studies on breastfeeding and depression in a paper in the journal Pediatrics last year. She concluded that depressive symptoms are a risk factor for breastfeeding failure:

The results from this review suggest that women with depressive symptomatology in the early postpartum period may be at increased risk for negative infant feeding outcomes including decreased breastfeeding duration, increased breastfeeding difficulties, and decreased levels of breastfeeding self-efficacy.

Similarly, the AHRQ report on breastfeeding and maternal and infant health outcomes concludes:

It is plausible that postpartum depression led to early cessation of breastfeeding, as opposed to breastfeeding altering the risk of depression. Both effects might occur concurrently.

Of note, there is ample data that social support, maternity practices, and other factors impact breastfeeding outcomes, and it’s entirely possible that poor support leads both to depression and to early weaning.  The studies published so far haven’t teased out the role of these factors in the link between breastfeeding and postpartum depression. But for now,  there’s insufficient evidence to determine whether weaning causes depression, or depression causes weaning.

While researchers sort this out, it’s worth considering the potential harm of promoting breastfeeding as cure-all for postpartum depression. Postpartum depression is under-diagnosed and undertreated, and mothers often suffer in silence, not realizing that their symptoms are not normal and could be relieved with therapy or medication.

If mothers with postpartum depression get the impression that they aren’t at risk because they are breastfeeding, I worry that they may further delay seeking help. Similarly, if those of us in the breastfeeding community internalize the idea that breastfeeding prevents PPD, we may be less likely to recognize and treat breastfeeding mothers who are depressed.

The Edinburgh Postpartum Depression Scale (EPDS), a 10-question screening tool, is available in English and Spanish, and is a great tool for identifying moms at risk. The ABM reviews the EPDS in its detailed, evidence-based protocol on screening and treatment for PPD in nursing mothers.

So what’s the bottom line? There’s considerable data showing that moms who are successfully breastfeeding are less likely to be depressed than those who are not. It’s far from clear, however, whether depression causes weaning or weaning causes depression.

While the researchers try to sort out the answers, it’s safest to assume that all moms are at risk for postpartum depression. All  providers who care for mothers and babies must do our part to make sure that families do not suffer in silence with this devastating condition.

Alison Stuebe, MD, MSc, is a maternal-fetal medicine physician and assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

Written by astuebe

April 18, 2010 at 1:15 pm

Posted in policy, research

10 Responses

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  1. […] Does breastfeeding prevent postpartum depression? It would be great if the answer were an unequivocal “Yes!” Postpartum depression, or PPD, is one of the most common complication of childbirth, affecting about 1 in 10 new moms, with devastating consequences. […]

  2. When I was struggling with Postpartum Depression, both times, nursing/pumping was the ONE thing I was doing right and I held onto it like a life-line. I nursed my first daughter for 16 months until she self-weaned and pumped exclusively for my second daughter, born with a cleft palate, for seven months (two months post-cleft repair). For me, breastfeeding saved me.


    April 19, 2010 at 10:58 pm

  3. […] In response to your inquiry about how breastfeeding relates to depression, here is the state of current research on the subject, & why the connection hasn’t been well-researched: […]

  4. […] 2010 at 4:59 pm · Filed under breastfeeding and tagged: postpartum depression Unfortunately, postpartum depression may be the ONE ailment that breastfeeding does not prevent.  More research is needed on the link […]

    • Why all the studies? Of COURSE bottle feeding encourages PPD. Your body thinks you just had a still-born. When studies link cancer and depression with things like birth control and bottle feeding, the scientific community just keeps on doing new studies, to disprove the evidence.


      January 25, 2012 at 6:20 pm

      • I breast fed all eight of my children well over a year and never once had postpartum depression
        Later when my baby was around a year old experience severe depression when my husband left me and was having sex with other women, left me and was setting me up for losing custody of my babies,,, no way was i depressed,,,,after my babies were born i was the happiest girl in the USA…

        suzanne cyr

        April 2, 2013 at 3:33 pm

  5. […] postpartum depression? Well, not really it seems. From Alison Stuebe***, MD, MSc, article entitled “Does breastfeeding prevent postpartum depression?”:Researcher Cindy Lee Dennis reviewed 49 studies on breastfeeding and depression in a paper in the […]

  6. […] between weaning and depression. However, according to an article by Alison Stuebe, MD, MSc on the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine’s blog the cause of that link is […]

  7. Thank you for your post, Dr. Steube,

    I have always felt that the PPD/Breastfeeding link was more of an association than a causal relationship.

    There was another study published on this subject recently in Maternal Child Health, which found that women who had intended to breastfeed, but failed, had a high risk of PPD.

    Here is that study—this is the abstract, but I was able download the full text from this page.

    Here is another link to a support group for women who have IGT—and the devastation they have experienced.

    As a nurse I spoke a quite few women who had been not been successful at breastfeeding and were pretty broken up about it. I was unable to breastfeed my first —he would not latch (, I ended up pumping for a few months). Those first few days in the hospital and at home were rough, and I felt like a pretty lousy mother!!!

    Luckily, the la leche league ladies were wonderful, supported me every step of the way, and I did not feel too guilty or as if I had failed as a mother. This was 20 years ago, and I’m not so sure that the support for those who do not succeed is always there–(thank you again, Dr Steube for calling attention to this).

    I do feel that if pregnant/post partum women were made aware of the fact that breastfeeding could be difficult and didn’t always work, some of this PPD associated with breastfeeding cessation might not occur as much.

    Anne Risch

    August 20, 2014 at 8:57 pm

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