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?
- Beth Azar, “The postpartum cuddles: Inspired by hormones?” Monitor on Psychology 33:9 (October 2002), 54.
- Ann Behnke, “The Physical and Emotional Effects of Postpartum Hormone Levels,” International Journal of Childbirth Education 18:2 (June 2003), 11-14.
- Sylvia Brown and Mary Dowd Struck, The Post-Pregnancy Handbook: The Only Book That Tells What the First Year After Childbirth Is Really All About—Physically, Emotionally, Sexually, St Martin’s Griffin (2003).
- Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, “New Studies in Postpartum Depression,” Leaven 41:4 (August-September 2005), 75-79.