In my experience, and the experience of most mothers, stress can adversely affect a breastfeeding mother’s milk supply and ability to breastfeed. Extreme stress can inhibit letdown, cause frustration and even cause the milk supply to diminish if the stress is prolonged. In my mother and baby clinic about 80% of the mothers I see are having issues with milk supply and/or coping with the changes in their lives. They are exhausted, overwhelmed and worried that their baby is not getting enough milk. How we as individuals handle stress varies and some mums and their milk supply will be more affected by stress than others. Understanding that stress can affect the milk supply of the breastfeeding mother is the first step. The second step is to attempt to reduce that stress. This is not always possible as some things are out of our hands. However with the help of family and friends and a quiet room, much can be done to relieve temporary everyday stress. Whether your stress is being caused by everyday demands of a family or you are a working mum, it is important to keep the baby’s welfare in mind and try to maintain good sleep and eating habits.
How stress affects supply
The mechanism around the production of milk is an interesting one. 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.
Oxytocin, a hormone released in the bloodstream when you breastfeed, can have a calming effect. This means that a mum who is stressed and breastfeeds her baby is likely to become more relaxed. When you relax your milk will start to flow again.
Relaxation is the key. There’s a range of techniques and remedies that can help a breastfeeding mum to relax. The following techniques are a good place to start:
- Half an hour before feeding time (especially in the afternoon when you are tired) eat a good protein-filled snack or a protein smoothie made from pea protein powder that’s available from health food stores (avoid dairy-based proteins). This will help give your milk supply a good boost.
- Drink a large glass of water and have extra water to drink during the feed.
- Remove yourself from the rest of the family to a nice quiet, warm room. Either get someone to watch the older kids or explain to them that it’s quiet time (TV may be appropriate here) and that you need to be left undisturbed (unless it’s an emergency!).
- Play some soothing music.
- Before placing baby on the breast, take five deep, long breaths, slow yourself down, get into the moment.
- Continue to take deep long breaths as you place baby on the breast, while she sucks and when letdown starts. Breastfeeding cannot be rushed, you need to be able to relax for this important bonding time.
Also look at herbal support to address your stress levels and relax the nervous system. To enrich the quality of your milk you could try Quintessence Lactation tonic coupled with herbs such as withania, kava (if anxious), rhodiola and liquorice. B vitamins are essential for the nervous system as is a good magnesium supplement. Everyone is different and may require slightly different nutrients. Although breastfeeding is a natural function it does require you to “set the stage” and allow it to occur effectively.
Natasha Berman-Carter is a naturopath, medical herbalist and managing director of Qbaby (www.qbaby.co.nz). She’s mum to Eli and Asher.
This article first appeared in OhBaby!