Stress and Breastfeeding: Effects, Causes, and Coping

Asian mother comforting crying baby
Physical and emotional stress can affect breastfeeding and your milk supply. JGI/Tom Grill / Getty Images

Stress is your body's reaction and response to change. There's good stress, and there's bad stress. Good stress, or eustress, is positive and healthy. But, bad stress, or distress, is the negative stress that you probably think about when you hear the word stress. This type of stress is harmful and can cause health problems. It can even affect your ability to breastfeed successfully.

Everyday Stress

Stress is ever-present in our daily lives.

It can't be prevented, and it can pop up when we least expect it. Stress, fear, and anxiety can be brought on by many situations and issues, and it's different for everybody. What's very stressful to some women, is not as stressful to others, and some people just deal with stress better.

You can try to prepare for everyday stress by thinking about the things that can cause stress and learning how to use coping strategies to help you get through it. When you know what you're up against, it may be easier to keep it to a minimum and prevent it from getting in the way of the things you do every day, like breastfeeding.

Stress and Breastfeeding

Stress can affect breastfeeding in a few ways. High levels of stress in breastfeeding moms can lead to a difficult let-down reflex, and it can decrease your breast milk supply. Too much stress in everyday life is also associated with early weaning.

On the positive side, breastfeeding may help to lower your stress.

The hormones that your body releases when you breastfeed can promote relaxation and feelings of love and bonding. So, breastfeeding frequently may actually help you to combat everyday stress.

The Causes of Stress in Breastfeeding Moms

If you familiarize yourself with some of the common causes of stress that new moms face before you have your baby, you'll be better prepared to deal with them should they come up.

Here are some of the things that can increase a breastfeeding mother's stress levels.

  1. Pain: Right after your baby is born, you may feel pain from the delivery. Then, once you start breastfeeding, other issues such as sore nipples and breast engorgement can cause even more discomfort. Pain is a stress on your body, so if your doctor prescribes pain medication you should take it (as long as she knows that you're breastfeeding). Relief from the pain will help you to relax and reduce the stress. You'll be able to breastfeed more comfortably, and your body will be able to focus on making breast milk and letting down instead of the pain.
     
  2.  A Difficult Birth Experience: When you've planned to have a natural childbirth without medications, but end up with a difficult delivery or an unexpected c-section, it can cause stress, guilt, and disappointment. However, if you plan for the best, but know that there's a chance that the birth may not go the way you envisioned it, you can at least prepare.
     
  3. Concerns About Privacy: If you're self-conscious or embarrassed about exposing your breasts, it may be stressful to breastfeed. You may be worried about having visitors or taking the baby out in public. Then when you're out, you might worry about feeding your child late, or where you'll go to breastfeed privately. These fears are often greater in the beginning, but over time, you're likely to become more comfortable as you learn to breastfeed more discreetly.
     
  1. A Lack of Breastfeeding Confidence: You may be worried about your ability to breastfeed because of your breast size, your diet, your work schedule, or another reason. Talk about your concerns with your doctor, a local breastfeeding group, an online support group, or a family member or friend that has breastfed. They can help answer your questions and relieve some of your stress over these situations. It may help you feel better and more confident.
     
  2. Having Breastfeeding Problems: Early breastfeeding problems such as difficulty getting your baby to latch on and sore nipples can be frustrating and stressful. To prevent unnecessary stress, learn as much about breastfeeding as you can before your baby is born, and get help latching your baby on correctly right from the first breastfeeding.
     
  1. Feeling Exhausted: Taking care of a newborn is tiring. It's around the clock care: 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Add to that the other responsibilities in your life, and it's easy to become overwhelmed and exhausted. To fight off fatigue, try to sleep when your baby is sleeping, put off housework and other responsibilities for a while, and don't be afraid to ask for a little help from your partner, family, and friends.
     
  2. The Changes in Your Body: Your body and your hormones change so much during pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. You may be worried about how much weight you've put on or the changes in your breasts. But, these changes didn't happen all at once. They took place slowly over nine months while your body was carrying your growing baby. So, be patient and give yourself and your body some time to recover.
     
  3. Concerns About Breast Milk: Some of the main fears that new breastfeeding mothers have are will they make enough breast milk, how they will know that their baby is getting enough breast milk, and will their breast milk be good enough. While these concerns are certainly understandable, they are often unnecessary. Most women make nutritious breast milk regardless of their diet and their situation, so chances are your breast milk will be just fine. And, as long as you're baby is latching on correctly and breastfeeding very often, you will most likely be able to make a full, healthy supply of breast milk.
     
  4. Your Child's Temperament: Some newborns are easy. They eat well and sleep between feedings. Then there are those with a more challenging disposition. If your child rarely sleeps or cries a lot, it could be harder and more stressful for you, especially if you don't have much help or support. If you can, get some extra help. And, try to remember that the newborn stage doesn't last forever. Your baby should sleep more and cry less as she grows.
     
  5. Relationship and Family Problems: If your partner is not on board with breastfeeding, but you think it's best for your baby, that's stressful. Try to acknowledge your partner's concerns and fears, so you can both be on the same page when the baby arrives. Bringing your new baby home also changes the routine for your partner and your other children.You may feel a lot of stress as you do your best to help everyone adjust. Separation and divorce are also major stressors, especially for a new mom.
     
  6. Financial Worries: Money is a big source of stress for many people, not just new mothers. But, if you take time off of work for an unpaid maternity leave or decide to be a stay at home mom, it can have a huge effect on your family's income. Plus, you now have to add the cost of diapers and other baby supplies to the budget. While it's ideal to plan out your finances before you become pregnant, that's not always an option. So, talk to your partner about the budget and financial concerns while you're pregnant so that you can make a plan for how you're going to deal with the changes once the baby arrives. That will help to ease the stress after delivery.
     
  7. Dealing With Criticism and Lack of Support From Others: Even though breastfeeding is becoming more popular and more “normalized,” there are still people who can't help but make comments or give their opinions even when it's not wanted. Sometimes these people are family and friends. While it's easier to brush off the comments of strangers, it can be difficult to ignore the concerns and opinions of those who mean the most to you. But, try to focus on what you know about breastfeeding, and remind yourself why you chose to do it. You may even be able to teach your family and friends a few things, and possibly change some of their opinions while you're at it.
     
  8. Living Up to Social Media Standards: There is so much pressure to be the perfect mom, especially on social media. If you're comparing yourself to others moms who post pictures of all of their best parenting moments, it can really make you feel like you're not measuring up. Try to remember that social media posts are just a snapshot in time, and often, people only post their best moments. You do not always see their reality. No one is perfect, even if it looks like they are. So, if you can't tune out of social media entirely, then try not to let the perfect mom posts get to you and just keep doing the best that you can. You can also look up and follow some of the amazing women out there who encourage and support other moms and actually post about the realities of parenthood. 

Healthy Ways to Cope With Stress 

You can't avoid stress, but you can learn how to deal with it in a healthy way. Having your coping skills ready can help you reduce the stress and prevent it from getting in the way of successful breastfeeding. You can start by taking care of yourself. Try to eat healthy foods and get enough sleep. That's hard to do when you're a new mom, but when you feel good, and you're well rested, it can make a difference in how you handle the things that are thrown at you each day. And, for those moments when you feel the stress rising, you can: 

  • Walk away from the situation if it's safe. Go out for a walk or go into another room and take a few moments for yourself. 
  • Take some slow deep breaths. Concentrating on inhaling and exhaling can help to calm you down. 
  • Talk to someone. If you can share your feelings with a friend, your partner, or another family member you might feel better. You can also discuss your feelings with your doctor or a therapist. 
  • Get some exercise. Exercise can relieve stress, and it also releases endorphins into your body. Endorphins are natural feel-good chemicals that can reduce stress and make you feel happy. 
  • Stay away from drugs or alcohol. Drugs and alcohol can make things worse, plus they can enter your breast milk and pass to your baby.

Stress, the Baby Blues, and Postpartum Depression

Some amount of stress, fear, and anxiety is normal after childbirth as you adjust to life with your new baby. However, when stress and anxiety are more than expected, it could be a sign of postpartum depression. Talk to your doctor about your stress levels and how you're feeling, especially if you're feeling blue or depressed. If you need it, there are treatment options that are safe for breastfeeding mothers. Even if your doctor prescribes an antidepressant to help you through this difficult time, you still shouldn't have to wean your baby. Feeling overly stressed or depressed is nothing to be ashamed of, and if you feel this way, you're not alone. Ask for help, so you can get back to feeling more like yourself again as soon as possible.

Sources:

Groer MW, Davis MW, Hemphill J. Postpartum Stress: Current concepts and the possible protective role of breastfeeding. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, & Neonatal Nursing. 2002 Jul 1;31(4):411-7.

Lawrence, Ruth A., MD, Lawrence, Robert M., MD. Breastfeeding A Guide For The Medical Profession Eighth Edition. Elsevier Health Sciences.

Li J, Kendall GE, Henderson S, Downie J, Landsborough L, Oddy WH. Maternal psychosocial well‐being in pregnancy and breastfeeding duration. Acta Paediatrica. 2008 Feb 1;97(2):221-5.

Mezzacappa ES, Katkin ES. Breast-feeding is associated with reduced perceived stress and negative mood in mothers. Health Psychology. 2002 Mar;21(2):187.

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