Women who breastfeed are typically cautioned that any medications they take may enter their breast milk, making some new mothers hesitate before taking antidepressants. But new research suggests women on antidepressants are more successful at breastfeeding if they continue taking the medication.

The research was recently presented at the 18th Perinatal Society of Australia and New Zealand Annual Conference in Perth.

According to the Mayo Clinic in the US, many new moms experience mood swings and crying spells that quickly fade. However, some new moms have a longer-lasting, more severe form of depression called postpartum depression.

Though this is frequently treated with counseling and medication, the Mayo Clinic note that there could be potential risks of the medication reaching the new baby through breast milk.

However, postpartum depression brings with it a host of symptoms, which, if untreated, could interfere with the mother’s ability to care for her baby and other daily tasks. These symptoms include: insomnia, irritability and anger, fatigue, severe mood swings, withdrawal and thoughts of self-harm or harming the baby.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 11% of Americans over the age of 12 take antidepressants and females are 2.5 times more likely than males to take the medication.

To further investigate the benefits and risks for new moms, researchers from the University of Adelaide in Australia – led by Dr. Luke Grzeskowiak of the Robinson Research Institute – used data from the Danish National Birth Cohort in Denmark to study 368 women who were on antidepressants prior to becoming pregnant.

The researchers found that 67% of the women stopped taking the antidepressants they were on prior to becoming pregnant once they either became pregnant or during breastfeeding.

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The researchers found women who stopped taking their antidepressants were also more likely to cease breastfeeding; however, breastfeeding has benefits for both mother and child.

Dr. Grzeskowiak explains: “A third of the women (33%) continued to take antidepressant medication throughout their pregnancy and while breastfeeding, and these women were much more successful at maintaining breastfeeding up to and beyond the recommended 6 months.”

Compared with these women, however, he says the women who stopped taking antidepressants “were also more likely to stop breastfeeding within the recommended 6 months.”

He and his colleagues say the health benefits of continued breastfeeding significantly outweigh the perceived risks to the baby from taking antidepressants.

There have been several benefits linked to breastfeeding babies during the first 6 months. For example, in 2013, Medical News Today reported on a study that suggested breastfeeding for longer improves a child’s intelligence.

And Tom Frieden, director at the CDC has noted that babies who breastfeed “have lower risks of ear and gastrointestinal infections, diabetes and obesity, and mothers who breastfeed have lower risks of breast and ovarian cancers.”

“This is a really important message,” says Dr. Grzeskowiak of their findings, noting that breastfeeding benefits for the mom also include protection against postpartum depression.

Though many women may be conflicted about taking medications during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, Dr. Grzeskowiak says:

”The amount of antidepressant medication that finds its way into a mother’s breast milk is very low. On the balance of it, we believe that continuing to take antidepressant medication and maintaining regular breastfeeding will be the best outcome for both the baby and the mother.”

The Mayo Clinic offer some tips that new mothers can do on their own to speed recovery from postpartum depression:

  • Make healthy lifestyle choices, including healthy eating, exercising and avoiding alcohol
  • Make realistic expectations and do not try to do everything
  • Make time for yourself
  • Keep thoughts positive – behavioral therapy courses may help with this
  • Avoid isolation.

“If [new moms] are taking antidepressants,” adds Dr. Grzeskowiak, “they should be supported and encouraged by family members, friends and health care professionals to continue their medication, knowing that good breastfeeding outcomes are all-important for them and their child.”