Failure to Breastfeed Sent Me Spiraling Into Depression
by Jeanne Sager
I stood, back hunched over to protect my throbbing breasts from the pinpricks of hot water in the shower, and let loose sobs that echoed around our tiny bathroom. My husband waited outside the curtain, begging, "Just give her formula. It's okay. You don't have to do this to yourself anymore." Our daughter was less than a week old. I was a failing at breastfeeding, and I felt like a failure as a mom, as a human being.
It would take another week to give up nursing entirely, and I sank into a bout of postpartum depression that would take some serious anti-depressants to beat. I felt completely alone at the time. But according to a new breastfeeding study, I was anything but.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Sociology have now found alink between breastfeeding failure and higher rates of postpartum depression.
Conversely, they say breastfeeding success is linked to lower rates of PPD.
Just another "rah, rah, breast is best" study to throw in with the rest of them and incite another mommy war? Not exactly. You see, researchers didn't just look at breast vs. bottle. They specifically focused on mothers who wanted to breastfeed and their success (or failure) to do so.
If you want to breastfeed and can't, the study claims you are twice as likely to suffer postpartum depression than moms who planned to formula-feed in the first place.
Makes sense, doesn't it? If you have your heart set on doing something and can't, it only stands to reason that it will affect your mental health. But there's a stark difference between wanting to, say, be in the NBA, and wanting to nourish your child the way millions of women have done for thousands of years.
For me, breastfeeding was always the plan. I was breastfed as a child. I watched my younger brother be breastfed. I read books on breastfeeding while pregnant. I got a breast pump, registered for a boppy.
I was all set to do this.
Then my daughter was born. The nurses cleaned her up and brought her to me, and I tried to get her to latch, but she wanted to go back to sleep. It was OK, the nurse assured me, she'd wake up and be hungry at some point. They wheeled her away to the nursery so that they could get me down the hall to my room.
I didn't get a second chance to try nursing that night.
The next day, when I tried, latching on was a struggle. When I called for help, a nurse who didn't have children of her own and who had never breastfed positioned my daughter at the breast, told me, "If it hurts, you're doing it wrong," then left the room.
My daughter unlatched, began to scream, and as I tried to get her back on, I felt pain. Taking the nurse's words to heart, I immediately moved her. Again and again and again, my newborn would latch, I would feel pain, and I would assume I was doing something wrong, that my child couldn't possibly get the milk she needed. The latch would be broken. My frustrated daughter would cry, and the cycle quickly became vicious.
The nurse's parting "tip" was only a small portion of the bad information I got at the hospital, information that I took as solid at the time because I didn't know just how few maternity ward staffers are educated on lactation. In fact, studies since have shown a direct link betweencommon hospital practices and breastfeeding failure rates.
Those studies came as no surprise to me when I read them and remembered a nurse popping a pacifier in my baby's mouth and -- when I expressed concern over nipple confusion because I was breastfeeding -- told me it was fine. At the time, I took the nurse's word because, hey, she was the "expert," right? Wrong.
I took the nurses at their word when they told me to wake my sleeping baby every two hours round the clock to eat, too. I brought her home, and every two hours, I tried to feed her, going through the latch on/latch off process over and over and over again as my nipples became increasingly chapped.
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Oh, and to complicate this all? The remaining effects of pregnancy-induced carpal tunnel made holding my own child painful. My wrists screamed every time I re-positioned her tiny body.
But I was determined to make this work. Moms do it every day. I should be able to.
With no La Leche League in my small, poor, rural town, no lactation consultants at any of the nearby doctor's offices or at my hospital, I smeared greasy ointments on my nipples, rested my throbbing wrists on my keyboard, and I searched the Internet for answers.
The mothers on most message boards were of little to no help. I'm sure there are plenty of lovely folks out there who would have helped, but I seem to have come upon a bad group. Their overwhelming sentiment? Suck it up, buttercup. You have to do this or else you must not love your child much.
I got no solid tips, aside from this: your baby may not be eating enough and that's why she's crying; try pumping to increase supply.
So I did. Every two hours, I woke my baby to feed her. Every other hour, I latched a machine to my breasts and let it squeeze my nipples down tiny tubes, working out whatever bits of milk I could muster.
I was getting no sleep. I was in pain. And my daughter and I both spent much of that time crying -- often in unison.
When I finally threw in the towel on breastfeeding and allowed my husband to start mixing up bottles of formula, some of the exhaustion abated.
The crying did not. I felt trapped in my own home, and yet I feared leaving, had to be begged to actually go farther than the front steps of our porch. I loved my daughter with every inch of my being, and yet I felt like she'd be better off without me. I'd failed to do what it is a mother is supposed to do for her child. My body had failed her.
I look back and I have nothing but love for the man who convinced me to stop nursing. He wasn't an unsupportive husband who didn't think I should breastfeed. He was a man who saw a wife and a child who both needed help. He helped me get medicine, which, in turn, helped me get through the fog of postpartum depression and back to my daughter, while formula helped her flourish.
Nine years later, my daughter is healthy and strong, and I'm well past those awful days of constant crying and self-loathing.
Still, when the topic of breast vs. bottle comes up, I struggle. I feel at times like I'm brandishing a scarlet F on my chest, signaling to the world that I'm not quite up to snuff as a mom.
Studies like this one are bittersweet. It helps to know that I'm not alone, that my response was natural. But it confounds me that -- nine years after I gave birth -- we still live in a world where a large number of moms are told "breast is best" but not given the proper tools and support to actually succeed at breastfeeding.
We should do better. We need to do better.
Not just for the babies but for the moms.
What was your breastfeeding experience like? Did it lead to postpartum depression?
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