Breastfeeding is an emotionally charged topic. Almost everyone has an opinion on it, from men who have never had children to women who have nursed 10 or more. Why does it elicit so much opinion? Why is nursing a baby (the biological norm) considered radical in some circles? What exactly causes such extreme feelings to emerge?
How Breastfeeding Impacts Mental Health
Breastfeeding is not only the optimal way to nourish a baby. It also alters the mother and child psychologically, through hormones. Besides, the mind can control hormones in a way that alters breastmilk production. It isn’t just the optimal nutrition for the baby. It also changes the mother to be more receptive of her infant and fights off postpartum depression. Moreover, it helps get the body back in shape and recover from birth, not to mention creates a bond between two people that is second only to the relationship they have while in the womb.
What are hormones?
Hormones are best summed up as slow nerves. They are a part of the endocrine system and flow through the bloodstream until they get to their desired destination. They fit into cells like a puzzle piece, triggering a response. Hormones originate mostly in the sex organs (ovaries, testes), but also in other organs such as the pancreas and the brain. Oxytocin and prolactin are the hormones most associated with breastfeeding.
Prolactin is produced by the anterior (front portion) pituitary gland in the brain and secreted into the blood stream. The hormone targets the human breast and tells it to produce milk and also acts on the ovaries to suppress ovulation (natural birth control associated with breastfeeding).
Oxytocin, secreted into the blood stream, is produced in the posterior (rear portion) pituitary gland in the brain. It causes the breastmilk to ‘let down’ in the milk ejection reflex. It is also known as the love hormone. The hormone contributes to the high that some mothers have when looking at their newborn baby. Oxytocin is not confined to breastfeeding; it is also released during both male and female lovemaking, sexual, and maternal behavior. It causes the uterus to contract. The synthetic form, Pitocin, is used to induce labor and stop postpartum hemorrhage in the medical setting.
Oxytocin is also in the milk that the baby suckles, which in turn goes into its bloodstream, causing the happy ‘milk drunk’ attitude seen in a child often after he or she breastfeeds. Mother’s hormones get passed to the infant in a smaller amount, but they are still there. A baby breastfed to sleep or right before sleeping not only has a full tummy, but it feels filled up with love as well, as oxytocin is higher in its system from the breastmilk.
Other hormones used in the production of breastmilk include insulin, cortisol, thyroid hormone, parathyroid hormone, human growth hormone. Moreover, there may be other hormones that have not been discovered yet.
How to Use Hormones to Your Advantage
Nursing moms must understand the psychological and biological processes involved in breastfeeding. It can help them to have a successfully breastfeeding relationship with their infant. At one time or another, a mother may experience low supply, characterized by her child fussing at the breast and a feeling of emptiness in the breast or a slow let-down reflex. Because breastfeeding starts in the brain (where the production of hormones takes place), a mother can think her way into producing more milk. By taking a break from everyday stressors and sitting in a quiet room and focusing on loving her infant, a mother can get the hormones flowing.
I have been able to understand how breastfeeding psychology works when my milk production has decreased. Low milk supply is mainly due to a stress of something as simple as trying to nurse in public while frantically doing errands or meeting a deadline. Taking a deep breath, smiling at your infant, closing your eyes, and imagining milk flowing out of your breasts to nourish your child are not something reserved for those who are new age hippies. It is something that is scientifically backed and allows your brain to slow down and produce the hormones that are needed to produce milk.
I first learned to do this when my daughter was a few months old. I remember sitting in a chair with my squirming infant as she would suck and then thrash at the breast after a stressful day. She was frustrated with not getting her dinner as fast as she would have liked. I relaxed, smelled her sweet neck, cradled her little fingers in mine and closed my eyes. All of a sudden she was gulping and milk was dribbling down her neck. Both oxytocin and prolactin had surged in my moment of relaxation, and milk produced quickly.
A Special Relationship With Your Child
The hormones secreted into the bloodstream enable the body to produce breastmilk efficiently. Moreover, they affect the brain in a way that strengthens the bond with your child. Mothers of breastfed babies are often hypersensitive to their child’s needs compared with mothers of infants who are given human milk replacement (formula) or donated human milk. A lactating mom will often be more adamant about keeping her child with her. And a separation of mother and baby before the nursing mom is ready will be more traumatizing for both parties involved. This is more than just motherly love. This is hormones affecting the brain and breasts that tell a nursing mother that she must stay with her infant at all times.
When it Does Not Work Out
This is not to say that mothers who do not breastfeed for whatever reasons are unable to love their children. It is just to look at the biological and emotional relationship with a mother and her breastfeeding child. The hormones produced during breastfeeding do impact the child and the mother in a way that cannot be reproduced. Children can thrive and grow on human milk replacement (formula) as well; I did as an adopted child.