Moms, take a moment to appreciate your body. It’s amazing that bodies can not only create other bodies, but then sustain them once they’ve left the womb. You are downright amazing.
Yet nursing can be just as bewildering as it is beautiful. If it’s your first time breastfeeding (or even if it's not, it can be different for each child!), it’s common to have a lot of questions. What’s normal? What’s not? How does it work? How does it affect your body?
Here are answers to four of the most common questions about breastfeeding.
What Does Breastfeeding Do To Your Body?
Breastfeeding doesn’t only concern your breasts; it’s a whole-body endeavor. It affects your bones, back, shoulders and wrists — and even your hormones.
On average, moms lose between 5-10% of their bone mass within six months of beginning to nurse. That’s because your body takes calcium from your bones to make sure your milk has enough for your little one.
Don’t panic — about six months after weaning, you’ll likely gain back your bone density. In the meantime, while you are breastfeeding, take these steps to maintain your bone health:
- Get lots of sun. Vitamin D boosts bone density, so try to soak up the sun at least once a day. Take your baby outside for walks, or choose a sunny spot on a patio rather than sitting inside.
- Take a calcium supplement. Look for a supplement that also contains magnesium, which will help your body absorb the extra calcium you’re giving it.
- Eat foods high in calcium. Milk, yogurt, calcium-fortified orange juice, and dark leafy greens can all help your body replenish calcium.
Back, Shoulders and Wrists
When you’re holding your baby to nurse eight or more times a day, it’s easy to feel strain in your back, shoulders and wrists. Try these tips to minimize the stress on your muscles:
- Hold your baby with a relaxed grip. Don’t clutch your baby tightly with your hands. Instead, try to keep baby nestled snugly in your arms while relaxing your grip. This will reduce the strain on your wrists.
- Find the right posture. There are many different breastfeeding postures, so experiment with a few different positions to find what suits you and your baby best. Whichever one you choose, have something supporting your back, and never lean forward to nurse.
- Tone your abs. Strong abdominal muscles help protect you from back pain. While sitting or standing, try using your core muscles to slowly pull your stomach inward, then release it — with that simple exercise, you’re strengthening your abs!
Nursing causes prolactin and oxytocin to course through your body. These hormones make you feel good, and high levels of prolactin also prevent your body from ovulating and delay the return of your period. Exclusively breastfeeding can be an effective birth control method for many women in the 6 months following the birth of their child (talk to your doctor to learn more).
When you wean your baby, your body stops producing these hormones at the same high rate. This can affect your emotions, especially if you wean suddenly. Don’t despair if you feel gloomy or moody the week after you stop breastfeeding. After weaning, it’s normal to feel down for a few weeks — but if you find you’re feeling low for longer than that, or if your emotions are interfering with your daily life, talk to a doctor.
Which Foods Should You Avoid When Breastfeeding?
Great news — most breastfeeding mothers don’t need to follow a special diet or avoid any particular foods. The key to healthy breastfeeding is keeping up a nutritious, well-balanced diet, rather than one that eliminates any one food item.
Caffeine and alcohol are both okay in moderation; up to three cups of a caffeinated beverage per day is usually fine, and it’s generally safe to breastfeed after one alcoholic beverage (if you’ve had more than one, you may be better off waiting for your body to clear the alcohol from your bloodstream before feeding).
If you notice a pattern where your baby is especially fussy at the breast or extra gassy after you’ve eaten a particular food, avoid that food until you’ve weaned. Some babies will be sensitive to certain foods, and others will not.
Why Does Breastfeeding Make You Tired?
You are quite literally taking nutrients from your own body to feed another body; that is an incredible feat, and an exhausting one. Beyond the tiring reality of waking up every few hours to feed, breastfeeding makes your body release the hormone prolactin — which makes you feel relaxed but can also cause drowsiness.
If you’re finding that breastfeeding is making you drowsy, make sure you:
- Stay hydrated. Consider pouring yourself a glass of water each time you breastfeed — giving your body plenty of fluids to combat fatigue.
- Get enough vitamin D. Sitting in the sun not only helps your calcium intake (see the first question above), but it also boosts your energy levels.
- Sleep when baby sleeps. You’ve heard this advice before, and that’s because it’s important. Getting sleep is one of the best things you can do for yourself (it refreshes both your physical body and your mind), and parents learn quickly that the most opportune moment for a nap is when baby is sleeping.
What If You Can’t Breastfeed?
Breastfeeding may be a natural process, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy one. All mothers go through a period of trial-and-error when learning to breastfeed; and while some moms learn fairly quickly, others face challenges like poor latching, low milk production, or just trying to find a feeding position that’s not painful.
Not only are these struggles perfectly normal, but actually very common — about 92% of women experience problems when they first start breastfeeding. Remember, it’s a learning process for both you and your baby. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help from your physician, midwife, or a professional lactation consultant.
If you are unable to (or choose not to) breastfeed, formula is a nutritious alternative for your baby. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty if you aren’t nursing — some people have very strong opinions about breastfeeding, but the truth is that research shows no significant difference between children who are formula-fed and those who are breastfed. The important thing is that your child gets the nutrients he needs; whether from the breast or the bottle.
No Matter Your Feeding Experience, You and Baby Are In It Together
Whether your baby nurses from the breast, or snuggles up against you for a bottle of formula, feeding time is an incredible bonding experience for you both. No matter how frustrating, emotionally draining, or physically uncomfortable the process can be — it’s all normal to feel! Focus on the fact that while you are feeding, holding, speaking to, and looking at your baby, you are forming a one-of-a-kind emotional connection; you deserve a pat on the back (and we don’t mean the burping kind), for all of the impressive work you do as a mother.