20% of women are affected by mental illness either during pregnancy or in the 12 months after giving birth, which is known as the perinatal period. Many trans and non-binary parents, who may not identify as women, also report mental health changes in the perinatal period, though evidence suggests they are less likely than cis women to be signposted for mental health advice after birth.
These perinatal mental health issues can include anxiety, depression, postpartum psychosis and PTSD. They can be caused by a number of reasons, including a traumatic birth or caring for an ill baby. These mental health needs can have a profound impact on breast and chest feeding so it is important that families can access appropriate support.
The levels of care and support for people with perinatal mental health needs vary depending on where they live in the UK and a number of other factors. There have been many tragic cases of perinatal mental illness reported in the media, some of which have ended in loss of life. Many mums and parents affected by perinatal mental health issues hide how they are feeling, as they are worried about what might happen if they ask for help.
Breast and chest feeding during the perinatal period can feed into mental health issues. For example, parents often report that they feel “pressured” to breast or chest feed. Some parents also have concerns around taking medication and feeding their baby. Therefore, it is imperative to get the most appropriate support regarding concerns around feeding options.
Breast and chest feeding can have different effects on someone’s mental health depending on their individual circumstances and experiences.
For some, breast or chest feeding can be a really positive experience. It can help with bonding and attachment between parent and baby and promotes oxytocin, which can cause surges of positive emotion. It’s also cheaper and arguably quicker, as there is less time spent on bottle preparation or expense of buying formula milk.
However, in order to be able to comfortably and happily breast or chest feed, new mums and parents need access to good support from family, friends and health professionals. They also need access to good education around latch positioning and any other aspects of feeding.
It’s also important for parents to get the right advice if they are breast or chest feeding and taking medication. Some people get worried and stop taking their medication when they are pregnant and/or breast or chest feeding. This can lead to a relapse in their mental health. In reality, some medications are safe to use during pregnancy and breast or chest feeding but some are not. That’s why it’s good to get advice from your GP, midwife and any other trusted health professionals you are working with.
At My Plan, some clients we have worked with have expressed a lack of appropriate support from professionals. They have talked about not being offered support or not knowing where to access it. This includes a lack of support for them at home with ensuring they are well fed, hydrated and supported with other aspects of baby care.
Trans and non-binary parents can also face a range of additional barriers when trying to access appropriate feeding and perinatal support, as highlighted in the LGBT+ foundation’s 2022 report here. The report notes that trans birth parents were twice as likely to say they did not receive support and encouragement about feeding in comparison to a sample of cis women.
This lack of appropriate support can increase mental health issues for mums and parents in the perinatal period.
Breast and chest feeding can also come with other challenges.
At My Plan, one of the main difficulties brought to us is about sleep deprivation, especially if someone is at risk of Postpartum Psychosis.
Another issue regularly raised is clients feeling that they have failed if they can’t breast or chest feed. This can start a cycle of guilt and negative thoughts etc. There is some evidence that mothers who planned to breast or chest feed but didn’t were twice as likely to become depressed than mothers who had not planned to do so. This suggests that the pressure associated with “getting it right” can potentially have adverse affects on mums’ and parents’ mental health.
Some parents also experience their mood dip when they stop breast or chest feeding due to sudden hormonal changes, which is a risk some may prefer to avoid.
On a more hopeful note, breast and chest feeding is not the only way to bond with your newborn: responsive bottle feeding can also be a positive bonding experience, as can other forms of feeding.
Ultimately, whether or not to breast or chest feed your child is a personal choice. Whether parents want to breast or chest feed, combination feed, or formula feed, it’s about what’s right for you and your baby. The most important thing is – that your baby gets fed! In the end, it’s about parents feeling empowered, to make informed decisions/choices and to be happy with their method of feeding.
The Breastfeeding Support Project is a listening ear and a helping hand when it comes to all things about breastfeeding and mixed feeding (breast and bottle feeding). This service is for expectant families or families with babies under 6 months living in the Better Start Bradford area.
Bradford Breastfeeding Buddies
Leeds Bosom Buddies
Support Beyond Yorkshire:
*A note on language: Throughout this blog, we use the terms ‘breast and/or chest feeding’, instead of simply ‘breastfeeding’. This is because some people who feed their newborn won’t identify with the term ‘breastfeeding’. For example, trans and non-binary people with newborns may be more comfortable with ‘chestfeeding’ as a less feminized or more gender-neutral term to describe their body and feeding process. The terms breast and chest feeding can also be used to describe different methods of feeding. To find out more, Healthline’s website here has further information, as does this report from the LGBT+ foundation.
Throughout we also mostly use the terms ‘parents’ or ‘mums and parents’ to highlight that not everyone who breast or chest feeds will be a ‘mum’ or a woman. The exceptions to this are when reporting specific stats, where ‘women’ or ‘mums’ have been surveyed, and when describing the experiences of specific women who have used Touchstone’s My Plan service.
For a glossary of terms used throughout, including ‘trans’ and ‘cis’, please visit the Proud Trust’s glossary here.