Being a new parent can be an exciting, overwhelming, and stressful experience. All of the new changes including meeting your breastfeeding goals, taking care of your baby and making time for yourself can all be new stressors in your life. How does stress impact your breastfeeding experience? Let’s look at the information together.
Cortisol and Breast Milk
Cortisol is a hormone produced by your adrenal glands (small glands on the top of each of your kidneys) released to different areas of your body. Cortisol helps with many functions in your body including helping with your body’s stress response, your metabolism (using the food you eat to help your body function properly), keeping your immune system running strong, and helping to control your blood pressure, blood glucose and ability to sleep. When someone is under a stressful situation, the body often makes more cortisol. Having higher than normal cortisol levels on a consistent basis can lead to health problems. Cortisol can be passed to the baby through the breast milk. Past studies have shown that cortisol was found in the human milk of breastfeeding mothers experiencing higher levels of stress, and led to more crying and fussiness in their breastfed babies. Newer research has shown that there was no long term relationship between human milk cortisol and how much a baby cries or is fussy. In a recent study, psychosocial stress (relationship between the social environment and one’s thoughts and behaviors) was found to affect the calorie level and fat content of human milk. However, lactating women have also been found to have decreased plasma levels of corticotropin, cortisol, and epinephrine (hormones released during stressful times) than non-lactating women. More research needs to be done in this area. The key thing to remember is even if you are feeling stressed, please know your milk is going to provide the nutrition your baby needs to be healthy. As a new parent, it is important to recognize, accept and figure out how to decrease your stress levels, receive the healthy support you need, and help your overall mental health.
Stress and Breast Milk Supply
For some breastfeeding mothers, stress may increase the hormone (prolactin) that is responsible for the production of breast milk, while others may see their breast milk supply and letdown response (helps to release milk from the breast) reduced. Breastfeeding and expressing milk also releases a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin is known as the letdown hormone as well as “the love hormone”. When your baby suckles at your breast, oxytocin is secreted from your pituitary gland which allows your breast milk to be released. In addition to helping with breast milk release, oxytocin has been shown to decrease the stress response and help breastfeeding mothers manage their stress, and feel more relaxed. Research has found that higher levels of support from health care providers and lower levels of maternal depressive symptoms have been found with longer durations of breastfeeding. This has been found in newer research as well. If you notice you are having higher levels of stress, it is recommended to reach out to a trusted healthcare provider to talk about ways to improve your mental health.
Ways to Maintain or Increase Breast Milk Supply
If you are concerned about your breast milk supply, or you feel your breast milk supply or breast milk production has decreased, talk with a lactation consultant as they can offer you tips on ways to make sure you are producing enough breast milk and your baby is getting enough breast milk.
They might discuss:
- Feeding your baby often to remove milk from your breast which will help to make more breast milk (most babies need to eat every 2 to 3 hours, 8 to 16 times in 24 hours)
- Latching and positioning your baby well, so it is comfortable for you and safe for your baby.
- Tips to know if your baby is receiving enough breast milk (e.g., visiting your pediatrics office to do a weight check, checking the number of wet and dirty diapers per day).
Take Care of Yourself
We hear about the importance of self-care everywhere, and it is more than just a word. If you do not take care of yourself, you cannot take care of others. We have all heard the important message flight attendants give before the plane takes off - put your mask on yourself before you help others put on their mask. Finding ways to give yourself a break and grace during your breastfeeding journey is very important. Say yes to help when trusted friends or family members offer to help with chores, meal preparation, watching your baby for a few minutes or just coming over for a needed visit and vent session. When your baby sleeps, find things that provide you rest as well (sometimes it may be hard to sleep when your baby sleeps, and that is OK).
Here are a few ideas to try:
- Listen to your favorite music or podcast
Dance around the house
Spend a few minutes doing your favorite hobby
Take a bath or a shower
Call or message a friend
Journal about your experiences and feelings
Join a breastfeeding support group to connect with other parents who are going through a similar situation
- Grab or order in lunch with a loved one
Watch your favorite TV show or movie
Read a book (even if it is for 10 minutes) - grab one from your local library
Relaxation techniques (many online apps offer 1 to 2 minute relaxation videos to help you breathe and relax)
Yoga (there are many options for online yoga videos so you can do it in the comfort of your own home)
Go outside - walk around the block with your partner, friend or supportive family member
This is also an important time to avoid negative coping mechanisms such as criticizing yourself, eating too much or too little, drinking alcohol, smoking or vaping, yelling at your family members, and avoiding friends. Many new parents feel overwhelmed, have trouble sleeping, or feel sad - these feelings often go away within a few days or a week, and are due to your hormones returning to normal after delivery and starting breastfeeding. Aeroflow Breastpumps has recently partnered with Canopie, an app that offers mental health support for new mothers by providing evidence-based programs to prevent and address symptoms of anxiety and depression in expecting and new mothers on a digital platform. However, the symptoms of postpartum depression are more severe and last longer. You may feel hopeless, lose interest in your baby or have thoughts of hurting yourself. If you experience any of these thoughts, it is very important you contact your trusted healthcare provider to get the help you need. The ideas in this article do not replace the care of a healthcare provider.
Being a new parent is an exciting and scary new adventure, but with support from your family members, friends, healthcare provider and lactation consultant, it can be a fun and rewarding adventure as well. You've got this, mama!
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