Does Breastfeeding Change Your Body?

Nursing mother with baby

Before the experience of pregnancy and breastfeeding, you might be curious what changes to expect with your body during pregnancy, during breastfeeding, and afterward.

Because of the hormonal changes in your body, your breasts may get larger during pregnancy. Increased blood flow can make them feel tight or swollen. If you experience breast sensitivity before your period, you may have a similar, stronger feeling during pregnancy. You may even see some discharge, as your breasts create colostrum in anticipation of your baby’s arrival. The most noticeable physical change is in fullness of your breasts.

After your baby is born and breastfeeding is well established, you will notice the change in fullness and size. As your breasts fill with milk, they become fuller and firmer. When your baby empties one breast, it will look and feel noticeably softer. If your baby stops after one breast, you will probably look a bit lop-sided until the next feeding. As you breastfeed, your breasts will change in appearance and feel.

Most of the changes that come with pregnancy and breastfeeding are temporary. Many new mothers want to know if their bodies will change permanently. Your body will definitely change permanently, but the extent of the changes varies greatly among mothers.

Several physical changes are happening. The milk-producing structures of the breast fill and empty, creating firmness and softness. Milk production results in denser breasts, which does mean some increase in size. For all women, though, fat cells determine breast size. During pregnancy, our bodies put on fat to support the pregnancy and breastfeeding. Part of the increase in breast size is just about fat—and, lest this isn’t clear in our fat-obsessed culture, that is a very good thing. Breastfeeding can reduce overall fat stores for some women, but it isn’t a given that you will lose the pregnancy fat after your baby is born. Another change that happens with the appearance of your breasts when your skin stretches. Some women get stretch marks; some women just find that their skin doesn’t feel as tight; and, yes, some women find that their breasts sag.

Sagging breasts aren’t caused by breastfeeding, though. A study found clear factors in sagging—age, significant weight loss, higher body mass index, large cup size, number of pregnancies, and a history of smoking—but breastfeeding, weight gain during pregnancy, and lack of upper body exercise were not among the causes. So, no, breastfeeding won’t cause your breasts to sag, though stretched skin might contribute to sagging.

Experience varies quite a bit between pre-pregnancy to post-breastfeeding breasts. You could return to almost the same size and shape you had before, your breasts could shrink and sag, or you could go from being flat-chested to abundantly busty (as I did).

To support your breasts and prevent unnecessary changes, wear a well-fitting bra during pregnancy and breastfeeding, even at night. This isn’t a necessity for health, but it can make a difference to post-breastfeeding appearance. Larger breasted women need a lot more support, and smaller breasted women can be fortunate enough to need no more than a breastfeeding top with a built-in bra. We carry Bravado Bras as well as Glamourmom and Undercover Mama nursing tops because these are the products we found helpful ourselves.

My Baby Keeps Falling Asleep While Nursing

Baby sleeping on mother

Does your baby keep falling asleep while nursing? Are you wondering whether this is OK? It is!

It is common for a newborn to be very sleepy. The size of a newborn’s stomach is very small. Their need for sleep is often greater early on than their need for food. Some babies even lose weight for a bit, but weight loss won’t go on for long for a healthy baby.

It isn’t a problem if an older baby falls asleep nursing either, unless you find it a problem. A baby might nurse a bit here and there for an hour then want to be fed again in another hour. If this kind of feeding doesn’t fit your schedule, you can take steps to encourage your baby to stay awake and nurse more consistently for a shorter period of time.

Keep in mind as well that you want your baby to get the fatty milk that comes as your breast is emptying (sometimes called “hindmilk”). Whether you do this by nursing frequently (keeping your breasts relatively empty) or by nursing until empty on one side before switching to the other, it doesn’t matter. Just make sure that your baby is getting the full benefit of the fatty milk.


How to Keep a Baby Awake

Many mothers have developed gentle ways to keep a baby awake long enough to nurse thoroughly.

  • Start by changing your baby’s diaper before feeding. If you use a cold cloth to wipe the baby’s bottom or against her face and back, your baby will start the feeding stimulated.
  • Don’t put your baby’s clothes back on after the diaper change. Some babies stay awake longer with skin to skin contact.
  • Tickle his toes. Be aware of whether this is fun or irritating for the baby, but it is a common way to keep breastfeeding babies awake.
  • Sing to your baby. Your baby loves watching you. If you do something interesting, you might find that she stays awake just to see what you will do next.
  • Use the cold washcloth again. Brushing your baby’s cheeks with a cool washcloth can cause an intake of breath and more awareness—at least for a short time.
  • If you nurse on both sides at a feeding, stop in between and play for a bit. Sing and laugh. This is similar to the idea of changing diaper before feeding. If your baby is stimulated to start, he is more likely to stay awake.


Or, Just Let the Baby Sleep

Chances are you need more sleep yourself. If your baby wants to sleep, maybe you can take advantage and sleep as well. If you have a soft, comfortable chair or if you nurse in bed, this works better than sleeping sitting up.

If you don’t need the sleep, but you do need focus time, can you do your work with your baby on your lap? If you have set up a nursing station with water, phone, notebook, book, computer, or whatever it is you need to do, your baby’s sleepy nursing time could be a good time for you.

One of my babies was a leisurely, sleepy nurser, and I didn’t try to change her patterns. I went on with my work by nursing where I knew I needed to be next. Sometimes, especially when I was nursing a toddler and pregnant, I just slept.

In general, it isn’t a problem that your baby falls asleep while nursing, unless you find it a problem. You can help your baby adjust to your schedule, but your baby also needs you to adjust to her needs. If your baby is growing, alerts at other times, and happy, do what you can to go with the flow.

Image © Valeko | Dreamstime.com

The Emotional Side of Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding a newborn baby

The first few weeks of breastfeeding after giving birth can be an emotional time for a new mother. The physical and emotional changes, and the hormones that stimulate these changes, can leave you wondering what is going on.

Look what you’ve just been through! The experience of giving birth chances you. And, now, the complete dependence of your new child gives you new responsibilities. Those responsibilities might make it difficult to return to healthy patterns of sleeping and eating. Then, there are the physical changes you are going through. Your body looks different. It IS different. Hormones stimulate changes that help you transition from pregnancy to breastfeeding. What a ride those hormones can take you on. Hold on.

Four hormones are responsible for many of the changes you experience as you move from pregnancy to breastfeeding.

Estrogen and Progesterone levels go down immediately with birth because the source of these hormones was the placenta. They go down to post-menopausal levels, so some women experience symptom similar to those of menopause. Yes, it is completely normal, and your hormones will return to higher levels. The progesterone had a mood-elevating effect, so you may have some emotional let down immediately, though the experience of meeting and bonding with your baby may keep you from noticing much. Just as with hormone levels during the menstrual cycle, different women’s bodies respond differently to postpartum changes in hormone levels.

Prolactin and Oxytocin levels go up as you begin breastfeeding. Prolactin stimulates milk production, as well as stimulating your appetite for milk production. In the first few weeks, oxytocin causes uterine contractions as your uterus returns to is normal size. Oxytocin has a calming effect. The well-being you feel as you gaze at your nursing baby, the bonding you experience as you establish the breastfeeding relationship, is stimulated by oxytocin.

Other factors than hormones also influence the emotional side of breastfeeding. Sleep (or fatigue), changes in appetite, and, for many mothers, anemia, can all affect your physical and emotional well-being.

The first two weeks of breastfeeding are critical. Most new mothers experience some baby blues. Keep in mind that there is a difference between the baby blues and postpartum depression. The baby blues come with the extreme changes in hormones just after birth and with the beginning of breastfeeding. Hormones aren’t the only factor, though. As a new parent, you have a lot of responsibilities, and your probably aren’t getting as much sleep as your body needs. You can lessen the impact of the changes by arranging a support system. Let your friends and family help you if you need a break. Let them cook for you or watch the baby while you take a nap.

You need sleep. Your baby’s sleep patterns have a big impact on your own sleep or lack thereof. Don’t let lack of sleep exaggerate the negative. For your own physical and emotional health, it is important that you get the sleep your body needs to lessen the effects of hormone changes and to give you the best chance to experience the beauty of those early days with your baby. Let the oxytocin and prolactin give you all of the calming and bonding help and ride that wave of love for your baby. Get as much sleep as you can to avoid the effects lack of sleep has on mood, appetite, memory, immunity, and safety.

Your hormones will change again after those early days. Even when you breastfeed long-term, prolactin levels will drop in four to six months. If you are still experiencing emotional upheaval after months of breastfeeding, it is possible that you are experiencing postpartum depression. A professional can help with diagnosis and treatment. There are natural ways to treat PPD for most women, and you can make lifestyle changes that help.

The hormones, the experience of birth and motherhood, the complete upheaval in your life—it’s all a crazy ride. Give yourself and your baby the best chance of a positive breastfeeding experience by doing your best to get enough sleep, eat nutritious food, and build back up to your normal level of physical activity.

More on those important early days of breastfeeding.


Are you interested in learning more about postpartum hormone levels?

Foods to Avoid While Breastfeeding?

Milkmaid Tea for breastfeeding mothers

Have you been told to avoid certain foods while you are breastfeeding? If so, let’s back up and ask why. Unless there is a specific reason YOU, your baby, or your family should not be exposed to certain foods, you don’t need a list of foods to avoid. You don’t need to avoid any foods if both you and your baby are happy.

The rules of good nutrition still apply. Favor unprocessed, whole foods. Buy organic any foods that are known to have the most pesticide residues. Get your vitamins and minerals from food sources when possible. Eat a lot of dark, colorful vegetables and fruits for the micronutrients.

If you wonder whether you are getting enough nutrition from your foods, sip tea while you are nursing. (Though, be careful never to hold a hot cup of tea over your baby. One kick and you can have an ugly accident. Let the tea cool off before you drink it.) If your milk supply is adequate, you could choose to drink nutrient-packed Third Trimester Tea from Earth Mama Angel Baby. This is a blend of red raspberry leaf, stinging nettle, chamomile, rose hips, and oat straw. All of these are great during pregnancy and during nursing. If you need to boost your milk production, Organic Milkmaid Tea included traditional herbal galactagogues, including fennel, fenugreek, anise seed and caraway seed, and mineral packed nettle and red raspberry leaf. Don’t drink this one while pregnant or if you already have enough milk. Whether you sip tea or water, having a drink nearby while you are nursing helps you to get enough water.

Will eating a lot of garlic flavour your breastmilk? Sure it will, but that isn’t a problem, if your baby likes garlic-flavoured breastmilk.

Can you eat peanuts and other nut butters? Sure, if you don’t have a history of peanut allergies in your family and your baby isn’t bothered. It won’t cause your baby to develop an allergy, and nuts (along with avocados, olives, salmon, and other oily foods) give you healthy fats you need.

Most of the foods that you might have heard you shouldn’t eat while breastfeeding (minus the nasty foods none of us should eat), is being eaten right now by a breastfeeding mother who is experiencing no problems. Your reactions and your babies reactions can be different.

If your baby is feeling gassy or having an unexplained diaper rash, the food you eat could potentially be the cause. You can eliminate foods that have been known to cause problems with some breastfeeding babies, then you can re-introduce slowly to check whether that was really the problem.

In the end, the only food my first baby seemed sensitive to me eating was tomatoes. Other foods often put in the same category, oranges and lemons, caused no problems at all. I don’t love tomatoes myself, so it was no hardship to give them up, and it helped my daughter avoid diaper rash. My second child had no sensitivities, and he still has no food sensitivities.

Your baby will be different. Start by assuming you can eat anything unless you have a family history of specific allergies. I found that it helped to keep a journal of my food and my baby’s reactions when I thought there might be a problem. I continued that same journal once I introduced solid foods. If you have already dealt with allergies, you are probably familiar with the idea of keeping a food journal of foods eaten and symptoms noticed. If you do have allergies, look over La Leche League’s list of articles on allergies and breastfeeding for specific help.

If you notice no discomfort in your baby, go ahead and eat curry, chocolate, and whatever else you love.

For more details on the foods that you don’t necessarily need to avoid while breastfeeding, read Kelly Mom’s post on foods to eat while nursing. She busts breastfeeding food myths with science.

Important Early Days of Breastfeeding

Baby breastfeeding

The first few weeks of breastfeeding are crucial in establishing the breastfeeding relationship. Your baby needs to learn to suck, and you need to build your milk supply. Those first important days give your baby immunity and you hormones that help your uterus contract and help you feel more nurturing toward your baby. Breastfeeding helps you both as you get to know one another.


Skin to Skin

Place your baby naked against your bare chest as soon as possible after birth. Be sure that you give your baby a chance to breastfeed before sleeping because those first few hours help you both do what your bodies are made to do. If the baby is just very sleepy, wake him within a couple of hours to initiate breastfeeding.


Colostrum

The first few days after your baby is born you will produce colostrum rather than milk. Colostrum is thicker, less fatty, and more nutrient dense than milk will be. The volume of colostrum is quite low, which gives your baby a chance to learn how to feed before the gush of breastmilk arrives. Colostrum also gives your baby antibodies and other immune factors.


Milk Coming In

You will notice a difference when your breasts become firmer and heavier after a few days. This is your milk coming in. It is important to feed your baby every 2-3 hours, or as often as your baby asks to be fed, to stimulate your supply.

How does your baby ask to be fed? You will see your baby rooting—turning toward your breast with mouth open. If you pet your baby’s cheek with your finger, you may notice that she turns toward your finger. Your baby might just be restless or pull hand to mouth. After a short time together, you will begin to recognize your baby’s own cues for hunger.


One Breast at a Time

Let your baby finish feeding at one breast before you offer the second. Don’t watch the clock. Your baby’s cues can tell you whether he is still hungry after finishing the first breast. Whichever side you started on this feeding, start on the other side next feeding.


Diapers

Don’t expect too many wet or dirty diapers at first. Until your milk is fully in, your baby may only have one dirty diaper and one wet diaper a day, increasing each day until you are changing a dozen wet diapers a day. Some babies have dirty diapers with every feeding, while others might go a day or even several days between dirty diapers. Don’t worry that something is wrong if your baby is not in distress. Just learn your baby’s rhythms.


Pacifiers

Babies suck not just to eat but to soothe. Some mothers use pacifiers or dummies to help satisfy that need, though a pacifier isn’t necessary if the mother is willing and able to nurse even when a baby seeks comfort.

One of the most common questions we get at bynature.ca about breastfeeding is about why pacifiers are trouble in the first few weeks. The problems come if a very young baby uses a pacifier before learning how to suck at the breast, causing nipple confusion; if a pacifier is used when the baby is hungry, leaving the baby hungry and not gaining weight when she should be; or if a baby sucking at a pacifier means less stimulation for the mother to establish milk supply, leaving the mother without enough milk to satisfy the baby’s hunger.

Of course, using a pacifier is always up to each family, but your breastfeeding relationship will be stronger if you wait 6-8 weeks to start.

In the first hours, days, and weeks after your baby is born, focusing on breastfeeding is the most important thing you can do for your baby and for yourself.

Image © Dmitry Panchenko | Dreamstime.com