Let’s give moms a break when it comes to breastfeeding

It’s World BreastFeeding Week and UNICEF and WHO are running full-steam ahead with their campaigns. Yet, while breastfeeding is an ideal, this kind of campaign is adding extra pressure on new parents, particularly moms, if they can’t or decide not to breastfeed based on their needs and situations.

Breastfeeding is an ideal – and this campaign clearly wants people to support it – yet for most moms and dads who’ve gone through the realities of ‘natural’ feeding, it’s not such a rosy picture. There’s the difficulties of latching, the pumping, the sleepless nights, the constant social pressures of equating breastfeeding to being a good parent.

While there’s been some alternative perspective on the week-long campaign, this recent study published in the Maternal and Child Health Journal highlights that women with unmet expectations about breastfeeding may be at higher risk for postpartum depression (PPD).

According to Maria Iacovou, PhD, a sociologist at the University of Cambridge in England and an author of the study, the benefits of breastfeeding is not new information. “But what is new – and urgent from a public health perspective – is that there is increased PPD risk among women who plan to breastfeed and then are not able to.”

The study suggests that women who wanted to breastfeed and did not may be in the most vulnerable position, possibly because they feel disappointment and guilt in addition to not getting the physiological benefits of breastfeeding.

If moms who are depressed fail at breastfeeding, that is another strike against their perceptions of being a good mom.

The study ultimately underlines the importance of providing expert breastfeeding support to women who want to breastfeed, but also to provide compassionate support for women who had intended to breastfeed, but who find themselves unable to.

I’ve been told that World Breastfeeding Week is trying to target developing countries because breastfeeding is the best way to provide infants with the nutrients they need. If this is the case, the message could be more specific, otherwise it might inadvertently be perpetuating social pressures leading to unnecessary stress and anxiety for parents who have the choice to decide how they want to feed their child.

One of the world’s largest events about maternal mental illness

The more I get involved in postpartum and mental health issues, the more I see that there are lots of awareness-raising events about them (at least in Vancouver). After the interview with CBC, I was pleasantly surprised when I was contacted to join this year’s “Climb Out of the Darkness” events in British Columbia.

I supported the Vancouver event (Facebook page) and joined the walk organized by Kristen Walker, an instructor at the University of British Columbia, who decided to raise awareness about postpartum issues after the death of someone she knew and their family suffering from postpartum psychosis.

Kristen Walker being filmed by CBC welcoming participants of the Vancouver event
Kristen Walker being filmed by CBC welcoming participants of the Vancouver event

Climb Out of the Darkness is one of the world’s largest events raising awareness of maternal mental illness, like postpartum depression. It is held on or near the longest day of the year to shine the most light on this issue by getting people to join together to climb mountains and hike trails to symbolize the rise out of the darkness of maternal mental illness into the light of hope and recovery.

In addition to fundraising more than $3000 to support postpartum support services, the Vancouver event also brought together around forty people who braved the rain and cold to come out for the morning walk. It was also great to see CBC interviewing people and covering the event.

I'm just to the right of the white umbrella on the left side of the photo (Credit: Ciara McDaniel)
I’m just to the right of the white umbrella on the left side of the photo (Credit: Ciara McDaniel)

The turnout was great and it was nice to see that there was this grassroots support for postpartum issues. But definitely more is needed to raise awareness and get people to talk about and share their experiences. The statistics are too real to ignore.

Virtually all women can develop mental disorders during pregnancy and in the first year after deliver.

According to the World Health Organization, virtually all women can develop mental disorders during pregnancy and in the first year after deliver – about 10% of pregnant women and 13% of women who have just given birth experience a mental disorder, primarily depression, and this is even higher for developing countries (15.6% during pregnancy and 19.8% after child birth).

Despite the emphasis in society on the postpartum challenges and struggles women and mothers face, this is also an issue for men whether it’s suffering from similar depression or having to support their partners. More dads need to be involved and speak out about their experience.

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An interview with CBC Radio about Postpartum Depression

Like every postpartum depression story, Muriel’s one is unique and deeply personal. It isn’t black and white or clear-cut because many factors and triggers make it different for everyone going through it. I’m glad that CBC Radio invited me to share a part of her story and our experience… While what Muriel (and I) went through was very different from who she was and the outcome isn’t what anyone expected, I’m glad that part of her story can be told and I hope that it can make a difference for both moms and dads.

**A web article and the interview can also be found on CBC’s Website.**

The interview highlighted some of our struggles. Here are few other things that we went through as a family and that some of the callers also brought up:

  • It felt like riding an emotional roller-coaster which was both draining and tiring.
  • The feeling of helplessness for not knowing what else to do and the frustration for being unable to see the end of the illness was very real.
  • Muriel reached out to friends, family, psychologists, and the hospital for help. Despite trying to find other ways to address her depression, anxiety, and struggles, we were at the mercy of doctors and the healthcare system because we thought they had the answers.
  • As Muriel’s condition deteriorated she became more recluse, but we also felt more isolated because of the stigma around postpartum depression (PPD) and the lack of understanding to address it and how to reach out to Muriel.

The on-air portion on the interview was only five minutes, but Gloria Macarenko and I talked a bit about what more could be done.

  • For one thing, it’s important for both moms and dads, as well as people in the support network, to realize that “it’s ok to not be ok”. There’s too much pressure, from society and between moms and parents, to be “good parents” or to do everything “right” (ex. breastfeeding).
  • Society must realize that it’s not only the person directly suffering from postpartum depression, but also their partner and child(ren) and they also need the support.
  • A mother’s physical and mental well-being is as important (maybe even more?) as a baby’s well-being.
  • Treatment for postpartum depression should include a mix of medication and therapy, including being in a supportive and appropriate environment for PPD-sufferers and babies, and communication between the medical team and families to understand the history, character and coping mechanisms of moms (and dads) who are suffering. There is no one-size fits all solution.
  • It’s important that soon-to-be new parents are aware of the possibility of postpartum depression and the causes and reasons for it. This includes changes in hormones, social pressures and expectations, and the ability for parents to cope with anxiety issues, lack of sleep, and the stresses associated with parenting. If there are pre-natal classes, why aren’t there post-natal ones?