Mental Health Effects of Breastfeeding
Once you have welcomed your new baby into the world and you’re in the hospital caring for them, you will likely be asked if you’re wanting to breast or bottle-feed. If there aren’t any complications, you likely already know the answer. You are probably familiar with the “breast is best” motto and have already met with the lactation consultant.
If you’re looking further for information about the hormonal effects of breastfeeding for you and your baby, there have been some studies. The benefits of breastfeeding have long been written about and studied for the baby. The phrase “breast is best” is used when encouraging women to breastfeed when they’re having trouble latching or starting to feel discouraged but is breastfeeding good for the mom’s hormonal health and mental health? The mental effects have also been studied and have found many benefits for both the baby and mom.
The topic of breastfeeding can sound intimidating and it can cause anxiety, but it shouldn’t. Here is a look at some of the benefits to the mom emotionally and hormonally, as well as some emotional benefits to your baby.
Positive Benefits on Mom
The main benefit that breastfeeding gives moms is the emotional bond it forms. When the baby takes the breast, it gives mom and baby a bond that the baby can’t have with another person. Breastfeeding leads to direct skin-to-skin contact with the newborn and that increases the bond with the baby. It also helps the baby hear the mother’s heartbeat, so it relaxes the baby and it helps the baby learn to regulate their body temperature. Even if you’re unable to breastfeed due to the baby being in the NICU after being born premature, “kangaroo care” is promoted as a way of bonding with the baby.
Another benefit to the mom is that breastfeeding releases oxytocin, a hormone that causes the milk that is already in the breast flow, and helps the baby to get the milk easily.
The other hormone that is produced is called Prolactin. It causes you to feel relaxed and calm, so as long as you’re breastfeeding you will produce more of the relaxation hormone. Prolactin is produced to help stimulate your body into milk production.
One benefit a lot of women find is that they feel more confident and tend to have higher self-esteem. The outlook on how well they can parent also plays a role when they are able to master feeding.
Breastfeeding also helps lower your risk of breast and ovarian cancer and developing Endometriosis, as well as some autoimmune diseases such as Lupus or RA.
Negative Effects on Mom
Not every woman has an easy time breastfeeding or even producing milk. There can be a feeling of failure if milk doesn’t come in or the baby can’t feed as much. The hormone produced, Oxytocin, promotes healing and shrinks the uterus down faster. That causes cramping at times so cramping can happen but is a normal sign that the body is healing.
Weaning can also cause some feelings of sadness- that baby is depending less on the mom and more on him/herself for nourishment. It can also cause grieving if the mom was wanting to feed longer and has to stop.
Immediately after giving birth, you will stop producing as much estrogen and progesterone as you were while pregnant. The sudden drop can lead to hair loss/thinning (but it’s temporary) as well as what is medically termed the “baby blues” so that is why your body increases Oxytocin.
Dopamine levels drop during let down, so with some women, they can drop too fast and too much. It can lead to depressed feelings that happen during letdown. There isn’t a lot known about it, but the term was coined “dysphoric milk ejection reflex” or DMER. The term has been around since 2007, so it is still very new.
The symptoms of DMER include sadness, irritability, depression, anxiety, restlessness, panic, and anger. There is no way to really diagnose the condition, it happens while prolactin and oxytocin are released- they cause dopamine to drop. If the levels drop normally, you won’t feel anything but if they drop too rapidly, you can develop the symptoms listed above.
Breastfeeding can also cause anxiety in new mothers.
Benefits to the Baby
Just like the mom, there are benefits emotionally to the baby long term. On the same note as the mom, breastfeeding gives the baby the strong bond that any other form of feeding can’t provide. It also provides closeness, security, and a healthy attachment to form.
As mentioned above, breastfeeding provides direct skin-to-skin contact with the mom and helps the baby with regulating their body temperature and helps calm babies. It can be stressful coming out of the womb into the hospital and the sound of mom’s heartbeat can help- it is a sound baby heard in utero for months.
Babies who are breastfed tend to also have a higher immune system, fewer cases of allergies and childhood Asthma or other diseases, and less chance of colic.
There are no negative changes for the baby unless the mother is on a medication that can pass through breastmilk. That’s why it is always important to talk to your doctor about any medications you’re taking. Some may make the baby a little grumpy or tired, others can cause fatal reactions.
There are many benefits but breastfeeding isn’t a walk in the park. Latching doesn’t always come easily, breasts don’t always supply enough milk, and milk supplies sometimes dry up earlier than planned. Some women are on medications that can cause problems for the baby and some babies are born unable to take the breast, so there is no need to feel anxious or depressed if you’re unable to successfully breastfeed. The benefits are highest within the first six months of the baby’s life, so if you stop for any reason by six months, the baby still got a lot of the benefits. Don’t let anxiety talk you out of breastfeeding. It’s the cheapest and healthiest way to feed your baby.
Meet Our KeaMommy Contributor: Bethany Boggs
Bethany Boggs is a 30 something married mother of 2 kids. When she is not writing or working her day job, you can find her wrangling her 2 girls and 3 cats while sipping cold Starbucks and trying to remember why she walked into the room.