Perinatal depressive symptoms and breastfeeding behaviors: A systematic literature review and biosocial research agenda

Margaret S. Butler*, Sera L. Young, Emily L. Tuthill

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Background: Breastfeeding is recommended to improve maternal and infant health globally. Depression has been posited to negatively impact breastfeeding, although potential causal and bidirectional pathways between these two phenomena have not been sufficiently characterized. We therefore conducted a systematic review to critically evaluate available evidence on the relationship between perinatal depressive symptoms and breastfeeding behaviors; to identify knowledge gaps and propose a biosocial research agenda to advance our understanding of this topic. Methods: A systematic search strategy was applied across seven databases. Data were extracted and aggregated using the matrix method to provide a narrative synthesis of findings. Results: Thirty-eight studies from 20 countries spanning 1988 through 2018 fit the inclusion criteria. In general, methods across studies were heterogeneous. Fourteen different tools were used to measure perinatal depressive symptoms. Nearly half the studies did not provide breastfeeding definitions. No studies from low-income countries met inclusion criteria. More than half (63%) of studies demonstrated a negative association between depressive symptoms across the perinatal period and less exclusive breastfeeding and/or shorter breastfeeding durations. Limitations: Heterogeneity in study design, definitions, assessment tools, and measurement time points limited the comparability of study findings. Causality cannot be assessed. Conclusions: Available evidence suggests perinatal depressive symptoms negatively associated with breastfeeding exclusivity and duration, which can lead to suboptimal infant nutrition and detrimental impacts on maternal mental and physical health. To better understand this relationship, we propose including consistent operationalization and assessment of depression and breastfeeding globally and concurrent repeated measures of key biological and social factors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)441-471
Number of pages31
JournalJournal of Affective Disorders
StatePublished - Mar 15 2021


  • biosocial framework
  • breastfeeding
  • perinatal depression

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Clinical Psychology


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