Breastfeeding affects your body more than you know.
WORDS CHERYLENE RENEE
For most new mothers, breastfeeding for the first time is an almost surreal experience. You are nourishing your newborn all on your own, and solidifying a lifelong bond with your precious little one in the process. Breastfeeding is one of the most natural things on earth, and yet it can also fill your new life as a mother with surprises, challenges, and some very intense emotions. Here are the changes you can expect – physically, emotionally, and mentally – if you are about to, or have just begun breastfeeding your infant.
From the Delivery Table to the Nursery
It is hard to ignore the immense changes your body has undergone during the course of your pregnancy – on the outside physically, and also on the inside, hormonally. During pregnancy, the sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone rise, triggering the growth of your uterus and the healthy development of your foetus.
After overcoming the throes of labour, however, your hormone levels
change dramatically, readying you for motherhood.
Dr Yong Tze Tein, second vice president of Association for Breastfeeding Advocacy Singapore (ABAS), explains that these are necessary and part of the normal physiology that composes your body for nursing – specifically, in preparing for your breasts to be milk-producing organs.
For starters, your oestrogen and progesterone levels decrease drastically right after giving birth. This plunge allows for the rapid increase of another hormone, prolactin. “This milk-producing hormone causes the breast glands to develop and the structure of the breast tissue to change in preparation for breastfeeding. Prolactin increases up to 20 times more than pre-pregnancy levels and remains high until breastfeeding ends,” says Dr Yong.
Prolactin is stimulated with baby’s suckling, but suckling alone is not sufficient to maintain milk production in your body. Let-down must also occur. “Milk must not only be produced,” says Dr Yong, “it needs to be ‘delivered’. When baby suckles, another hormone, oxytocin, which is responsible for milk let-down, is stimulated.”
Milk let-down, put simply, is the release of milk from a mother’s breast. It’s a powerful
physiological reflex that occurs as a result of stimulation from suckling
(or even from hearing baby’s cries), which signal the release
of oxytocin. Also known as the ‘love hormone’, oxytocin
is the biological facilitator for that precious bond
between mother and child.
This hormone also happens to be a relaxant.
While you are nursing, you may also notice yourself slipping into a peculiar state of mind – an intense, deep relaxation, which oftentimes borders on drowsiness. On a physiological level, oxytocin cues the milk-producing cells to contract and squeeze nourishing milk into the ducts. Milk is then removed, as your baby latches on and feeds.
“It is only with suckling and continued removal of milk that production continues,” says Dr Yong. “With demand, there will be supply, hence the importance of early and frequent latching of eight to 12 times in the early days.”
And while you continue nursing, oestrogen and progesterone levels continue to be suppressed. This, in turn, may lead to a host of other bodily changes – you might even notice vaginal dryness and a dip in libido. These are common, completely normal, and temporary side effects of breastfeeding, advises Dr Yong, who says that your oestrogen and progesterone levels will “return to normal [when] you start ovulating and your menstrual cycle returns.”
Dr Yong advocates that “any breastfeeding is better than no breastfeeding.” And the reasons why are clear.
“Breastfeeding fulfils all of a baby’s needs – food, warmth and love. Breastfeeding mothers are also more in tuned with their babies, which helps babies cry less and [be] calmer,” says Dr Yong. Not to mention that breast milk is nature’s intended (and perfect) diet for your baby. It is packed with nutrients for your baby’s healthy development and antibodies that safeguard baby from possible infections. “It is tailor-made to meet your baby’s needs. [...] Breastfed babies have less gastrointestinal and ear infections, sudden infant death, as well as lowered chances of obesity and diabetes,” adds Dr Yong. Some research studies have also linked higher intelligence amongst children who were breastfed as babies.
But it’s not just babies who reap the rewards of breastfeeding – mothers can expect plentiful benefits as well. “It may be challenging but all good things are. In return, breastfeeding will reduce your chance of developing breast, ovarian, womb cancer and diabetes.” Daily breastfeeding can also allow mothers to burn up to 500 calories in a single day – this is a big stepping stone towards regaining your pre-pregnancy weight or figure.
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