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How Your Hormones Help You Breastfeed

Sep 22, 2016

Wasn’t it supposed to be easy?" I asked myself. "Wasn’t this supposed to be what nature intended?" And yet I had already failed my poor child when he needed me most. I might as well quit right now…

I sat with my head supported in my hands, staring at the floor whilst my famished child lay desperately screaming beside me. The bags under my eyes were proof that I’d been up all night trying in vain to get some kind of nourishment into my poor little one. And yet nothing seemed to work. I gently offered him the breast- he screamed blue murder. I tried to encourage him kindly- he wailed desperately.
The midwife advised me to give up, to turn to one of those easy little blue cartons she kept behind the scenes. Told me that some people 'just can’t breastfeed. End of story'. I was a failure. A total disgrace to the human race."

It’s a sad story. But what you don’t know is that this story ended happily, and despite the challenges my former client successfully breastfed her son.

We’re all told that breastfeeding comes easily to women, so easily in fact, that we barely need to waste a single thought on it. However, this is so incredibly far from the truth that it hurts. Through no fault of their own, countless women around the world find breastfeeding a challenge.

I’m here to change all of that.

Today, I’d like to share the main the benefits of breastfeeding your child, explain the role that hormones play in successful breastfeeding, explain why things can sometimes go wrong, and give you some tools to tackle any challenges.

Why do they say that ‘breast is best’?

Your breast milk has been created especially for your own (very special) baby and is packed full of great stuff, like vitamins, minerals, antibodies that support the immune system, and growth hormones that will ensure that your little one is healthy and strong. Breast milk is incredible ‘live’ food and is about as natural as it gets. Without a shadow of a doubt, it is biologically best for you and your child. In the words of the NHS: “Breastfeeding is the healthiest way to feed your child”

There’s plenty of evidence to show the positive effect that breastfeeding has on the health of the two of you; babies who are breastfed are less likely to suffer from ear, chest or urine infections and less likely to have stomach or bowel problems. They are also less likely to suffer from obesity later in life. And of course, breastfeeding is great for you too. It helps your body to return to shape after the birth of your little one, reduces your risk of certain ovarian and breast cancers and supports your bones in later life. Nature is amazing!

How does breastfeeding work?

Throughout pregnancy, your breasts make a thick sticky kind of early milk called colostrum which will give your newborn a potent ‘shot’ of vitamins, minerals, antibodies and hormones at his or her first feed. High levels of a hormone called progesterone keep your milk production (and hopefully release) in check during your pregnancy, but this will all change once your baby is born.

After you’ve delivered the placenta [link to the article about stages of labour], levels of progesterone drop suddenly which signals to your body to produce ‘true milk’ that will go on to nourish your child through their early months (and hopefully even longer). True milk usually comes in after a few days, and is why your breasts are likely to feel ‘full’ at around 24-72 hours after the birth.

The physical process of feeding is controlled by your hormones too; your baby’s suckling signals to your pituitary gland to release a hormone called oxytocin –the love hormone responsible for falling in love, orgasm, childbirth and breastfeeding- which then in turn causes your milk to move forward in your breast ready to be drunk. This is known as ‘let-down’.

So it should be apparent by now that hormones have an enormous part to play in ensuring that you are able to do as nature intended, and breastfeed your baby.

What can go wrong?

As you heard in the story at the beginning, breastfeeding doesn’t always go to plan, and it isn’t our fault. You see, successful breastfeeding relies on the smooth running of all of those hormonal processes we mentioned earlier. If they’re disrupted in any way, then nature won’t be able to work its magic as effectively and breastfeeding will be more challenging. The following things are likely to have a negative effect upon breastfeeding:

Stress during labour: You need to feel comfortable, calm, safe and at ease during your labour. Any requests, stress, instructions or other outside demands that are made on you will stress your body and reduce the effectiveness of the oxytocin in your bloodstream.

Difficult or long labour: A stressful labour will cause raised levels of cortisol in your bloodstream which interferes with other hormonal processes.

Long-term stress: Lifestyle stress, money, relationship or job worries, bereavement and even any concerns about becoming a parent will increase levels of cortisol in the blood and reduce oxytocin levels in the bloodstream.

Medical interventions during labour: Any kind of medical intervention will have a negative effect upon your ability to breastfeed.
Inductions: Should they decide to induce you or speed up your contractions, synthetic oxytocin will probably be used.  However, this doesn’t act within the body like natural oxytocin in the body and so might affect the natural bonding process, and the establishment of breastfeeding.

Painkilling medications: Don’t think that you need to be a martyr to your pain. However, bear in mind that any painkilling medication has the potential to affect your ability to breastfeed. For example epidurals affect the oxytocin surge that occurs at birth and promotes breastfeeding.

Surgical delivery: Caesareans and forceps births affect those breastfeeding-friendly hormones too, by raising cortisol, reducing the oxytocin and interfering with the progesterone ‘boost’ that happens shortly after birth.

Diet and lifestyle: Your baby needs you to take great care of yourself. Believe that age-old advice to sleep whenever you can, eat the best diet that you possibly can, be kind to yourself.

The woman in our earlier story was subject to many medical interventions which were the root cause of her breastfeeding problems, and not, as she thought, her fault at all.

What can we do to promote successful breastfeeding

We can’t always choose the way in which our labour progresses, our circumstances, nor what our lifestyles demand. I know that from experience. However, what we can do is allow ourselves to make empowering choices that can positively benefit our breastfeeding experience. Here’s how:

Plan a calm, relaxed delivery with the support of the people you love and try to avoid interventions as much as possible. If your labour doesn’t go entirely according to plan, don’t blame yourself and continue calmly. There are still plenty more ways we can help you to breastfeed.

  1. Take care of yourself. Eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, aim to reduce general stress in your life
  2. Think positive thoughts. You can breastfeed your child and be a brilliant parent too.
  3. Employ great mind-tools. Visualisation, anchoring and breathing are all techniques I can help you master in order to stay calm, keep levels of cortisol down in your blood and help your body to birth your beautiful baby and breastfeed naturally.
  4. Seek help if you are finding it challenging to breastfeed. There are plenty of people out there who would love to help you- don’t give up. See below for some great contacts.

Breast milk is the most natural and healthy source of nutrition for your baby. Sadly, the hormonal processes that control breastfeeding can sometimes become disrupted through stress, medical interventions and lifestyle choices. Never fear!

Eat a healthy diet, reduce levels of stress and aim for a calm labour without interventions and you will be able to provide your child what is best for their body and mind. Please contact me to find out what tools and techniques I can give you to achieve just that.

Great general breastfeeding resources:

Kellymom

La Leche League

NCT Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding Network

http://www.who.int/topics/breastfeeding/en/

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