The World Health Organization calls colostrum “baby’s first immunization” because of the number of immune factors it contains. Colostrum is the first form of breast milk released by the mammary glands after giving birth. It’s full of nutrients and high in antibodies and antioxidants that build a newborn baby’s immune system.
That is just how important breast milk is for babies. Since stress is unavoidable, does it really affect your breast milk supply? And if it does, how can you manage it?
How Does Stress Affect Breastfeeding
Research indicates that stress can inhibit the neuroendocrine regulation of lactation which affects both milk production and milk release. According to UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dr. Shivani Patel, stress is the No. 1 killer of breastmilk supply. Rising levels of cortisol or widely known as “stress hormone”, a hormone that regulates our body’s stress response, can dramatically reduce your milk supply.
This happens when new moms go through a lack of sleep and adjust to the baby’s schedule. Other causes of stress can be anxiety, pain, financial difficulty, challenging relationships, or being concerned with your privacy while breastfeeding which could make you feel self-conscious or embarrassed. All of this can add to a decreased supply of breast milk.
It also affects not just your milk supply but also the contents of your milk. Stress does not actually affect your milk supply directly. If you are neglecting your body by not eating or drinking enough water or you don’t nurse your baby frequently because of a stressful situation, stress can indirectly affect your milk supply. And hormones like cortisol can enter your breastmilk, affecting its contents.
The cortisol found in breast milk increases the amount of cortisol in the baby’s system compared to formula-fed babies. This “secondhand cortisol” affects the areas that regulate emotion. One study shows that higher levels of cortisol correlated to babies who easily cry or become upset when placed in unfamiliar situations.
Oxytocin is responsible for the release of milk from the breast. Getting milk from the breast is not like sucking liquid through a straw wherein the stronger you suck, the more liquid you get. This is not the case with breastfeeding. The key to milk flow is triggering a milk release.
When a baby latches on to the breast and begins to suckle, the nerve impulses sent to the mother’s brain cause the release of oxytocin in her bloodstream. This causes the muscles on her breasts to squeeze the milk-producing glands. Feelings of tension, anger, frustration, or simply say, stress, can block it.
In an experiment published by Niles Newton in 1948, she noted that emotional disturbances, embarrassment, and pain inhibit let-down to the sucking baby, and thus the baby gets little milk. And that acute stress reduces oxytocin released during breastfeeding.
Managing stress while breastfeeding
You can try the following steps to reduce the stress that will benefit both you and your baby:
- Regular exercise such as taking a walk or enrolling in a baby/mom exercise class.
- Try deep-breathing techniques to help you relax.
- Put on some relaxing music that you find soothing. The more relaxed you are, the sooner you’ll have a let-down. Evidence shows that relaxation enhances milk flow.
- Laughter also decreases your body’s adrenaline levels and can increase your milk output.
- Set aside 15-20 minutes of your time to do a hobby or something that you can enjoy.
- Prioritize getting enough rest by taking a nap while your baby takes a nap. Breastfeeding with your feet up or lying down to get some extra rest.
Relaxation therapies while breastfeeding reduced maternal stress and increased infant milk volume intake and weight gain.
Stress can affect you and your baby may it be daily stressors or severe stress from unexpected tragic events. While stress is inevitable, you can do something so it won’t affect your nursing. Aim to alleviate your stress by following the tips above or any activity that will work for you. You can often increase your breast milk supply by addressing the factors that give you stress.