The process of creating life is a self-sustaining natural process. Female mammals have everything they need to tend to their young after birth. Picture a litter of kittens, a few hours old, rolling towards their mothers, eyes closed, nudging at her belly and looking for her nipples. They can find their source of food even before they can see it.
Human babies are the same. The smell of mom is familiar, and a baby can find the source of milk, latch on, and obtain all the nutrients it needs to survive outside the womb. Nursing allows for skin-to-skin contact, which can help with the mother-baby bond and can help baby thrive. Of course, nursing offers plenty of other benefits for mom, too.
Breastfeeding in the first hour after a baby’s birth helps the mother’s uterus contract. After birth, the mother’s contractions continue while her uterus shrinks back to its normal size. The contractions are stimulated in part by oxytocin, a hormone that is released when the mother breastfeeds and holds her baby skin-to-skin.
As the uterus contracts after delivery, it closes off the open blood vessels, restricting blood flow and slowing down the bleeding that naturally occurs after birth. Since breastfeeding increases the hormone that stimulates uterine contractions, it can help prevent excessive blood loss and postpartum hemorrhage.
New mothers are often overwhelmed by the responsibilities of motherhood. Oxytocin is known as the “love hormone.” It helps promote bonding between mom and baby, which is important when mom is figuring out how to manage this new little life.
Breastfeeding can help prevent postpartum depression in many women. Women who do not breastfeed or who stop breastfeeding early are at a higher risk for postpartum depression. This may be due to the sharp drop in certain hormones that can occur after delivery. Breastfeeding maintains steadier hormone levels, helping them decrease more gradually.
Breastfeeding can reduce the risk of breast cancer by more than 50 percent, especially for women with a family history of breast cancer. The risk of ovarian cancer is reduced as well, possibly because breastfeeding lowers the number of periods a woman has.
Not only does breastfeeding give mom the opportunity to sit or lie down and put her feet up, it stimulates the release of prolactin, a hormone that helps her relax and reduces stress.
It is recommended that mothers gain between 25 and 50 pounds during pregnancy. Much of this weight is lost shortly after delivery, but many mothers complain about extra baby weight. Breastfeeding can burn an additional 500 calories a day. This can help mothers lose the baby weight, especially in the early weeks, when they feel too tired to exercise.
Mothers who breastfeed may get more sleep than moms who don’t. When baby cries at night, getting up to make a bottle and sit with baby while baby eats can be draining. Many breastfeeding moms report that they don’t even notice how many times baby wakes at night.
Although it’s certainly not 100 percent effective, breastfeeding can reduce the chances of getting pregnant soon after delivery. Breastfeeding delays ovulation, which means moms don’t have to deal with the hassle of getting their periods and may not have to worry about getting pregnant. Of course, they may not know once they do begin ovulating, so breastfeeding moms should still use another form of birth control if they don’t want another baby so soon.
Breastfeeding can decrease the risk of hip fractures in women when they later reach the age of 60 years old or more. The longer a woman breastfeeds, the more the risk is reduced.
You’ve heard it before: Breast is best. Breastfeeding gives baby nutrients and immunity and helps mom and baby bond. But it helps make postpartum life easier for mom as well. Besides not having to hassle with expensive formula and bottles, it sets her up for better health later in life and reduces the stress of having a new baby.
Guest writer Carrie Atkins is a childbirth educator