All is quiet in the house. You're snuggled up with Baby gently rocking in a chair while he breastfeeds. You're smiling knowing all the goodness he's gaining from being breastfed. But, did you know that you're gaining some benefits for yourself? Breastfeeding is a wonderful time in a new mother's life … no matter how trying it may be for some. Once you get the hang of it, you'll start to see the benefits for your own body from breastfeeding. "Breastfeeding lowers a woman's risk of ovarian, uterine and breast cancers, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and postpartum depression as well as weight loss," says Kristin Daniel, M.D., of WOMEN Obstetrics & Gynecology, PLC, in Nashville. But that's not all!
The "Love Hormone" … Oxytocin
Those moments you spend smiling with joy as your little one nurses away is a time that you cherish and benefit from emotionally, too. Each time you breastfeed, you're becoming closer to your infant. Baby can feel and understand the happiness you're feeling and in turn relate that feeling of love to you. The sensation itself is something mothers experience, but what causes it? "Breastfeeding causes the release of oxytocin, which is a neurotransmitter and hormone — controlling labor contractions and milk letdown, but also mediates feelings of love and relaxation in the brain of both mothers and babies," says Daniel. "This promotes mother-baby bonding, can reduce the risk of postpartum depression and anxiety, and allow a sleep-deprived mother to deal better with that stress."
"Each time a baby breastfeeds, the surge of oxytocin in the mother’s body causes the uterus to contract," says Kimberly Hampton, IBCLC, of Middle Tennessee Lactation. "These contractions prevent postpartum hemorrhage, the most common obstetric emergency after childbirth. Studies have shown that the earlier breastfeeding is initiated, the less bleeding a mother has." Not only that but Hampton says that since newborns tend to feed more often and for longer periods of time, new moms are given the chance to sit back and relax while breastfeeding, thus giving the body more time to heal.
"The close skin-to-skin contact of breastfeeding plays a huge role in the bonding process," adds Hampton. "Studies show it can actually calm babies by lowering stress hormones. Each time the baby suckles, the hormone oxytocin is released to stimulate the milk flow. Oxytocin is often referred to as 'the love hormone' because of the euphoric feeling it produces. Babies use all of their senses to breastfeed, and they quickly learn their mother’s scent and begin to prefer her over everyone else. This intense need that the baby has for mom can feel overwhelming at times, but it can also feel empowering for mothers to know that they are the only person that can meet both the physical and emotional needs of the baby by breastfeeding," she adds.
Breastfeeding and Postpartum Depression
If you find yourself feeling sad and otherwise very unhappy, you could be experiencing postpartum depression (PPD). How does breastfeeding come into play?
"It is unclear whether problems with breastfeeding can increase symptoms of postpartum depression and anxiety or if mood disorders can cause breastfeeding difficulties," says Montville. "But patients with postpartum depression and anxiety are more likely to experience a shorter duration of breastfeeding. It is important for providers to screen patients for breastfeeding difficulties and mood disorders and provide treatment and support as needed," she adds.
Hampton disagrees. "Breastfeeding difficulties can increase the risk of depression, so it is important that mothers seek help early when problems arise." She says there have been a couple of studies showing that if new moms avoid breastfeeding altogether, they are more likely to be depressed. "Breastfeeding appears to be beneficial to a mother’s mood, likely because of the feel-good hormones associated with it," says Hampton. "However, there are unique biological and environmental factors that may predispose a mother to depression. Many breastfeeding difficulties can be worked through with support, and most treatment options for depression are compatible with breastfeeding," she adds. You have nothing to lose! Give breastfeeding a chance and try to boost yourself up if you're feeling down.
Decreased Risk of Breast Cancer
Wouldn't it be nice for all the work your breasts are doing to provide something so valuable to your newborn also provide something valuable to you, too?
According to Joanne Stone, M.D., and Keith A. Eddleman, M.D., authors of Your New Pregnancy Bible (Hamlyn; 2015), "Breastfeeding can reduce a woman's risk of developing breast cancer." Breastfeeding women everywhere rejoice at the thought of that! But, is it really true? "Although a direct causal relationship has not been established, it is believed that interruption of breastfeeding can increase the risk of breast cancer, high blood pressure and myocardial infarction in a woman’s lifetime," says Michelle Montville, M.D., of Women’s Group of Franklin. "More clinical studies need to be done to prove if breastfeeding can in fact reduce the risk of these conditions. In the meantime, all medical organizations encourage mothers to breastfeed their infants at least for the first six months," she adds.
Weight Loss? But You Gained Weight!
Women everywhere are giddy at the fact that they've been losing weight during breastfeeding, a well-known benefit to breastfeeding your baby. The longer you breastfeed, the more apt you are to lose the weight you gained during your pregnancy. However, there are some moms who gain more weight while they are breastfeeding. Why is that?
"Gaining weight while breastfeeding is unusual, but does happen to a minority of new mothers," says Daniel. "The mechanism for this is poorly understood. It may be that some women's bodies interpret the constant caloric output as stress, and therefore choose to hold on to calories for self-preservation," she adds. That said, it's most likely that mothers gaining weight are ones least comfortable with the idea of breastfeeding or those who are stressed while trying to breastfeed. If you're not comfortable with breastfeeding, that's OK. At least you're trying to provide what's best for your baby.
But, if you're stressed for any reason, not only can you gain weight, but you can also have a harder time with the letdown process and Baby latching on. Take a few moments to yourself before you pick Baby up to relax. Play some soothing music and enjoy a moment of peace … if you can. This only works if you do it in enough time before Baby starts crying out of hunger. Once you really get the hang of it, you'll start seeing the benefits yourself.
"Most women are burning nearly 500 calories daily just from nursing," says Daniel. But, don't expect that weight to keep coming off as Baby gets older. The amount of weight you lose "drops as you introduce food into your baby's diet, or when you replace breast milk with formula," adds Daniel. "The greatest weight loss is seen between three and six months postpartum, as this is when Baby is feeding maximally on breast milk alone."
Delay in Menstruation
"The return of a menstrual cycle in a lactating woman is affected by how often a mother is nursing and the duration of feedings," says Montville. "Breastfeeding mothers have elevated prolactin levels, a hormone secreted by the pituitary gland, and it is believed that higher levels of prolactin can inhibit ovulation and therefore, delay menstruation in a mother who is breastfeeding exclusively," she adds. Montville also says that you're likely to start ovulating again once Baby starts to breastfeed less often and for shorter amounts of time as well as if you start supplementing with formula.
Hampton agrees, "Breastfeeding delays fertility for most women, however, the time frame when a woman’s period returns can vary greatly based on the baby’s nursing pattern and the mother’s complex body chemistry. Some mothers see their menstrual cycle return as early as eight weeks, while others may not have a period for one to two years, or after weaning completely. The hormonal change that causes a delay in menstrual cycle is triggered by the baby’s suckling," she adds. So, if your menstrual cycle is not returning, does that mean you are less susceptible to becoming pregnant again? Some have claimed that this is a natural form of contraception.
According to Claire Gillman, a health and child-care expert and author of A Green Guide to Your Natural Pregnancy and Birth (Cico Books; 2010), "Breastfeeding can act as a very effective contraceptive only if you are fully breastfeeding a baby young than six months — you must be breastfeeding at regular intervals, day and night; giving your baby no other food or drink; and having no periods." Montville cautions breastfeeding moms saying, "Breastfeeding is not a reliable form of contraception, and a woman should discuss with her medical provider options for birth control during this time."