Should moms breastfeed while on medication?

By Drum Digital
13 May 2014

As a rule breastfeeding moms tend to avoid taking medication that could affect their breast milk in an effort to spare their babies any possible side effects. But what if you need the medication to treat a debilitating or even life-threating condition? Should you just give up on breastfeeding?

Dr Michael Mol from television show Hello Doctor recently tweeted that the health benefits from continued breastfeeding greatly outweigh any perceived risk to a baby from antidepressant medication.

He explains his tweets were based on a study done in Australia earlier this year using data from the Danish National Birth Cohort in Denmark. Almost 400 women who were on antidepressants before falling pregnant were used in the study.

“In a nutshell what the analysis showed was that those moms who carried on taking antidepressant medication were more able to continue breastfeeding for the paediatric recommended six months, which as we know has significant benefits to both moms and their newborns,” says Dr Mol.

He adds that comparative studies, such as one conducted by the American Academy of Paediatrics last year,  also show it can be beneficial to stay on antidepressants while breastfeeding.

What does this mean?

“Essentially what the research is saying is that those moms who experience depression will have a much harder time successfully breastfeeding compared to moms who stay on their meds,” he says.

However, he stresses that some medications aren’t safe for a baby and not all babies will react to meds in the same way.

“Some babies, because of their still-developing bodies, are more vulnerable to compounds of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) than others. Medication during breastfeeding remains a contentious issue and the research can often be inconsistent,” he says.

More about the meds

Dr Leigh Holloway, also from Hello Doctor, says some antidepressants, such as sertraline, citalopram, paroxetine and venlaxafine, are better during breastfeeding that others and they’ve been used safely in a clinical setting.

Lithium, however, should never be used by breastfeeding mothers, she says.

“Depression, and especially the postnatal variety, can be a serious, debilitating illness with significant risks for both mother and baby. We believe that the benefits of effectively treating depression with antidepressants, if indicted, far outweigh the risks of exposing suckling infants to the low levels of medication which might potentially be transferred in the breast milk,” she says.

She adds that if the medication is stopped, postpartum depression is a concern which could pose the risk of harm to both mother and child. “Postnatal depression especially carries a higher risk of suicide than other forms of depression as well as the risk that mom might, either through despair, neglect or intentionally, harm her infant,” she says.

Signs of postnatal depression

Dr Holloway advises moms to watch for any possible signs of adverse reactions, including (but not limited to):

  • Poor breastfeeding
  • Uneasy sleep
  • Irritability

“These [symptoms] are rather nonspecific though and can also be caused by many other factors,” she adds. Dr Mol advises moms check with their doctors to help them understand what their best options are.

General benefits of breastfeeding

Both doctors say there are benefits to breastfeeding, such as:

  • Breastfed babies have a much lower risk of:

    • Ear infections
    • Gastrointestinal infections
    • Diabetes
    • Allergies
    • Obesity
    • Moms who breastfeed lower their risk of breast and ovarian cancers.
    • It promotes mother-infant bonding.
    • It may also protect moms from developing postpartum depression.
    • It’s cheap and affordable, always ready and completely nutritious.

More help

For more information, click here to visit the Hello Doctor website.

-Shandukani Mulaudzi

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