The Hub Breastfeeding supports critical to maternal mental health

Breastfeeding supports critical to maternal mental health

By: Jessica Proeller

Master of Nursing student Kelly DeCoste says more supports are needed to help mothers overcome breastfeeding challenges

Within two weeks of giving birth to her first child, Carolyn MacGillivray felt discouraged and overwhelmed when she had trouble breastfeeding her newborn son.

The mother from Antigonish, N.S., had scarring on her left side from heart surgery she had when she was young. As a result, she only produced enough milk to nurse her son on her right breast, but it came with such force that he would choke on the milk.

“It was kind of scary at times because he would start choking and then there was milk everywhere,” MacGillivray said.

More than half of Canadian women who start breastfeeding stop within six months. Helping mothers like MacGillivray access the support they need to breastfeed successfully is one of the goals of Kelly DeCoste’s graduate thesis at Athabasca University (AU).

The Master of Nursing student from Nova Scotia is interested in exploring the link between successful breastfeeding and maternal mental health. For her graduate thesis, she worked with registered nurse lactation consultants in her home province to better understand the topic.

Increased support needed for breastfeeding mothers

Public health messaging often promotes “breast is best” for baby, however, DeCoste’s research found that mothers often feel unprepared for the challenges of breastfeeding, which can lead to feelings of shame and guilt. She said more publicly funded supports are needed to help mothers overcome these hurdles.

“We know that challenges breastfeeding can lead to decreased rates of breastfeeding, therefore increasing the risk of developing a perinatal mental health disorder.”

Lactation consultants can support mothers through their breastfeeding challenges by offering general breastfeeding help and education, including how to correctly position and help a baby latch when nursing.

Through the assistance of a publicly funded lactation consultant, MacGillivray learned techniques that significantly helped her nurse her son. That included showing her different positions to hold the baby. For the side of her body damaged by surgery, they recommended pumping at home to stimulate milk production.

“The lactation consultant was really great for just kind of changing my technique so I could continue to feed. She assured me that my milk levels would settle out to meet supply and demand.”

Lactation consultant teaching a mother about baby feeding techniques

Improving maternal mental health and breastfeeding in Nova Scotia

Through her research, DeCoste, who works as a nurse educator at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, found that inadequate support for breastfeeding mothers has in some cases led to perinatal mental health disorders or guilt for not being able to provide for their infants.

Maddie Gallant said she felt like she “wasn’t enough” when she experienced challenges breastfeeding as a new mom.

“The numerous obstacles made me feel like exclusively breastfeeding was only a dream that I was potentially unable to meet,” she said. “These feelings, compounded by the postpartum blues, really overshadowed the joy of welcoming my beautiful baby boy into this world.”

Research from Statistics Canada shows that almost one in four (23%) Canadian mothers experience symptoms of either postpartum depression or anxiety; however, variations exist across the country, with increased rates in the Atlantic provinces.

DeCoste said the registered nurse lactation consultants she talked to for her study build rapport with mothers during consultation appointments, which is an opportune time to discuss physical and mental health issues.

“Support for breastfeeding mothers is multi-faceted. It’s about meeting mothers and families where they are in their infant feeding journey and providing them with the support most suited to meet their goals,” she said.

She added that support for breastfeeding involves factors at the individual, interpersonal, community, organizational and policy levels.

“It’s important to consider what breastfeeding supports are available, and how we can provide equitable access to these services.”

While her current research focuses on Nova Scotia, DeCoste hopes to expand her research to provinces across Canada.

“I hope my research helps change policy so we have equitable access to health-care services, both for maternal mental health and infant feeding.” 

Shining a spotlight on graduate student research

To share her work with a larger audience, DeCoste presented her findings at the 2023 Graduate Student Research Conference (GSRC). AU and the Athabasca University Graduate Student Association (AUGSA) host the annual conference.

Students from across AU submit their research abstracts and gather to network and share their findings with a multi-disciplinary and supportive audience.

DeCoste said she learned a lot about the innovative research occurring across AU, and highly recommends the experience to other graduate students.

“Presenting at the GSRC provided me with the experience and confidence needed to continue disseminating my research findings through additional meetings and conference presentations,” she said.

Visit the conference website for more details.

  • May 10, 2024
Tagged In:
mental health,
Guest Blog from:
Jessica Proeller