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Quality of breastfeeding support impacts moms' mental health, study shows

Cumming School’s Kathleen Chaput finds new moms who received positive breastfeeding advice were less prone to post-partum depression
April 27, 2016
A new study from the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, lead by Kathleen Chaput, PhD (right), adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Paediatrics, found that among new moms experiencing breastfeeding difficulties — like Emma Stuart Campbell and her son Finn — those who received positive breastfeeding support were less likely to experience post-partum depression. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

A new study from the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, lead by Kathleen Chaput, PhD (right), adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Paediatrics, found that among new moms experiencing breastfeeding difficulties — like Emma Stuart Campbell and her son Finn — those who received positive breastfeeding support were less likely to experience post-partum depression. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

When Emma Stuart Campbell had her second son, Finn (now three years-old), the first few weeks of breastfeeding were challenging. Her son wasn’t latching and it was painful.

While in the hospital, she was sharing a room with a new mother who was receiving help from lactation consultants because her baby was tongue-tied (a condition where a band of tissue attaches the tongue to the bottom of the mouth and hinders the ability to suckle). When Stuart Campbell asked if she could also receive some help, she says she was made to feel as though her concerns were minor compared to what the other mother was going through.

After taking her baby home, Stuart Campbell received further advice from health-care professionals which prompted her into a cycle of setting alarms, waking Finn up to feed, and trying to fall back asleep before the next alarm went off. Her baby was healthy and happy, but the routine was turning her into what she calls a zombie: sleep-deprived and anxiety-ridden.

Each physician she talked to however, told her to keep doing what she was doing.

“When I left the house, I always felt like something bad was going to happen,” she says. “I’d cross the street and think, ‘oh my gosh, what if a car hits the stroller.’”

It wasn’t until she saw one physician — who said that Finn was healthy, a good weight, and needed to sleep and would wake up if he was hungry — that Stuart Campbell's anxiety subsided. The advice came as a huge relief as this meant that she, too, could sleep. While the anxiety subsided, it still persisted and finally prompted her to seek counselling a year later.

“I feel that the first few weeks set up an anxiety-provoking atmosphere until I finally stopped and got some help,” she says.

Positive breastfeeding support means new moms less prone to depression

Difficulties with breastfeeding are common, affecting 60 to 80 per cent of mothers in the first weeks of an infant’s life. A new study from the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine found that among new mothers experiencing breastfeeding difficulties, those that received positive breastfeeding support were less likely to experience post-partum depression.

For the study, researchers looked at the experiences of all mothers, with the exception of those who, prior to delivery, planned to bottle-feed. The study was recently published in the journal CMAJ Open.

“This is really exciting for us because we have really solid evidence that suggests we might be able to do something positive for these new moms,” says Kathleen Chaput, PhD, the study's lead author. Chaput is an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Paediatrics and senior research methodologist for the university’s Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

'A mentally healthy mom is incredibly important for baby'

Post-partum depression rates have been steady in developed countries for decades, affecting approximately 15 per cent of women who have recently given birth. While there have been great strides in screening for post-partum depression, the study provides information for clinical practice that could prevent post-partum depression among mothers who breastfeed. 

”We know that a mentally healthy mom is incredibly important for baby. We need to be mindful of mental health and well-being, especially around breastfeeding promotion and support, and the individual choices women make for their well-being,” says Chaput.

Through post-partum questionnaires, the study evaluated 442 Calgary women who had recently delivered and had no evidence of depression. The study measured breastfeeding difficulties, experiences with breastfeeding support and the emergence of post-partum depression symptoms.

87 per cent of women in study reported breastfeeding difficulty 

Of the women evaluated, approximately 87 per cent reported at least one severe or unbearable breastfeeding difficulty. The study also found that nearly 99 per cent of participants received some form of breastfeeding support. Those who reported that the support was a positive experience were at a lesser risk of developing post-partum depression. Positive support experiences included advice that was useful in solving a particular problem, advice that didn’t create pressure and having advice and support available when needed. Unsolicited advice was indicated as being unhelpful.

The finding that breastfeeding problems happen to almost everyone, combined with knowing that a positive experience with breastfeeding support reduces the risk of depression has direct relevance to patient-oriented care. Chaput says she hopes this new research will lead to a clinical trial in the near future.

Study can impact education programs and interventions

“This is really a positive message that if we can support breastfeeding and help moms meet their breastfeeding goals in the best way possible and in an appropriate way, then their mental health and well-being will be better," she says. "We’re really excited to move this forward into developing new education programs and interventions to improve care on post-partum units.”

Stuart Campbell adds, “I wish I could go back in time, knowing what I know now and to trust myself and my instincts. Even though I’d been through this before, I was so overwhelmed and vulnerable.

"I really think it’s important that all health-care professionals in contact with new moms are up-to-date with the recommended methods for breastfeeding and also take into account the well-being and mental health of the moms.” 

The information for this study was obtained through the Healthy Babies study.

Led by the HBI, Brain and Mental Health is one of six strategic research themes guiding the University of Calgary toward its Eyes High goals.