Stress and its effect on Breastmilk Production


It is a common theme everyday, all over the world that the business of daily life, finances, illness, separation and divorce are all common stressors we face. Sometimes stress is sudden and ongoing such as in the case of a natural disaster or war. Other times, stress is prolonged and ongoing for an indefinite amount of time such as in a divorce. The woman’s body is made to not only grow a baby, but also nourish and protect him once born. Moms can continue to breastfeed despite incredible circumstances.

A lot of moms report that during a stressful life event, their milk supply is affected in some way.  Sometimes moms experience stress that is severe and intense, which can temporarily inhibit her milk from letting down. This is thought to be a protective mechanism. As one doctor put it so well, you wouldn’t want to be leaving a trail of milk behind if you were running from a bear! Over a long period of time, it is possible for chronic stress to inhibit letdown often and long enough that milk production can be decreased. This is usually not the case, as breastfeeding releases hormones that helps mothers and babies both relax and have an easier time enduring stress, even under the worst of circumstances.

"It is not unusual for breastfeeding mothers to notice a temporary drop in their milk supply or a delayed or inhibited let-down, or milk-ejection, reflex when they are under great stress" (Mohrbacher and Stock 1997). The drop is temporary, however, and with time and conscious efforts to relax, a more normal milk ejection reflex will occur.

Let’s first take a look at how stress can affect one’s milk supply in a negative way. We need to realize that there is a very powerful mind-body connection when it comes to breast milk production and let-down. If a mom is feeling stressed out about a life changing event such as a separation or divorce, just the mere presence of these thoughts in her mind while nursing her baby could slow her let-down reflex. Some studies show that physical and mental stress can slow the release of oxytocin into the bloodstream of a breastfeeding mother. Oxytocin is the hormone that causes the milk let-down reflex. So if a mother is stressed, even if she has an abundant milk supply, sometimes her milk can’t let down because her stress level is inhibiting the ability of the milk to flow. Research shows that stress (cortisol) levels don't actually affect the amount of milk available for the baby, but it does affect the initial letdown. Once the baby is on the breast and is sucking, if the mother is not relaxed or "in the moment" letdown can take quite some time, causing frustration for the baby and fussing. This in turn can create more stress for both. If there is a continual delay in letdown from the breast it can lead to reduced milk supply.

Babies are also really in tune with how their mother’s are feeling. Your baby can totally sense when you are sad, stressed, or anxious. They pick up on these emotional cues and can  react in a distressful way usually by crying or pulling away from the the breast.

So what is a mother to do when she fears she won’t be able to let-down or produce enough milk to nourish her baby?  How can we eliminate a stressful situation (ie: not being able to get your milk to flow) within a very stressful life event like a separation or divorce?

Well you are in luck because  I do have the solution….it’s called RELAXATION!!!!

Research has found that breastfeeding reduces negative moods and stress – so nursing your baby can actually help you get through a stressful time.

Remember that little (very important) hormone called Oxytocin? Well oxytocin, is also otherwise known as the ‘love’ hormone. It can have a calming, relaxing effect on the mother. A lot of breastfeeding mother’s notice that when they are nursing their babies, they become very  sleepy and may even doze off. This is the oxytocin effect. This means that a mom who is feeling stressed and breastfeeds her baby, is more likely to become relaxed. When she relaxes, her milk starts to flow again. And since it's the baby's ability to drain the breast,  that stimulates milk production, a mother who keeps nursing is going to keep producing milk.

So the key is to be as relaxed as possible when latching your little one to the breast.

Well speaking from experience, that is a lot easier said than done!!

Below are some tips for initiating letdown before and during breastfeeding or pumping if you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed.  

Find a location to feed your baby where you feel very comfortable and safe. Choose a place that is free from distraction and generally relaxing to be in.

  • Half an hour before feeding time (especially in the afternoon when you are tired) eat a good protein-filled snack. This will help give your milk supply a good boost.

  • Make an effort to relax as much as possible before breastfeeding.  Listen to music, take a few cleansing breaths, meditate,  smell a relaxing scent, or do anything else that helps you feel at peace.

  • Researchers at the University of New Mexico found that listening to tapes of guided relaxation and imagery techniques helped moms whose babies were in intensive care to produce more milk.

  • Among the mothers with the sickest babies, milk production in those who listened to the tapes was more than double that of moms who didn't listen to the tapes. And the more times a mom listened to a tape, the more milk she produced.

  • Consider breast massage prior to nursing. It has been shown to assist with milk ejection and overall milk removal.

  • Bend over at your waist so that your breasts dangle from your rib cage, and shimmy your shoulders (move them back and forth) so that your breasts shake. This movement helps loosen tension in your neck and shoulders and assists milk in moving forward in the breast.

  • Enjoy the moment. If you are with your baby, smell his head, talk to him softly and stroke his hair.

  • Visualize milk spraying forth from your breasts like a waterfall or a rushing river. It sounds strange, but it often works!

  • If you are with someone you trust and feel comfortable asking, have them rub your shoulders and apply pressure between your shoulder blades. This, too, can help trigger the release of oxytocin and assist in milk ejection.

  • Drink a big glass of cold water. Moms often sip water while nursing, so that alone may initiate letdown through what is known as conditioned response.

  • Consider breastfeeding while bathing with your baby. This can help release tension in your muscles, and may help your milk flow freely.

  • Between feedings, spend time in skin-to-skin contact with your baby. This will help you  both relax, and aid in release of hormones associated with breastfeeding.

  • Contact a local Lactation Consultant for continued support, including tips to manage stress as it relates to mothering and breastfeeding.

  • Eat well and exercise. Eating nutrient-dense foods gives your body the necessary vitamins, minerals, and energy needed to overcome stress. Exercise is a well-known stress buster. Even a 30 minute walk around the block can lower blood pressure, ease tension, and clear your mind.

  • Contact a medical or mental health professional if you’re experiencing ongoing, chronic stress. They can provide information for stress management, and evaluate for related issues like depression and anxiety.

  • Consider talking to your doctor about taking a magnesium supplement.  This mineral is often depleted during times of chronic stress, and some experts suggest that supplementation may help reduce stress-related symptoms.

At the end of the day, we all know that stress happens and for some it happens on a regular on-going basis. But if you can remember to relax  and take a few deep breaths, this will help make your breastfeeding journey a lot more pleasant. I hope you have found this blog post helpful and informative. As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me directly for further support.

Happy reading and Happy Breastfeeding

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Posted on September 10, 2017 .