I breastfed my kids for a long time. It wasn't something I set off to do, but it worked out that way. I loved the time I spent bonding with my babies — the distinctly maternal sense of rightness I found as a mother feeding her children in this most primal of ways. I honestly didn't think to examine how it was affecting me other than making me wicked hungry and sort of sore about the nipples. It turns out there are some real mental health benefits of breastfeeding, and it's doing as much good for you as it is your baby.
While there are plenty of documented studies to the benefits of breastfeeding for babies, there often isn't a lot of study done into the benefits for the mother. Breastfeeding is mostly considered as solely the work of the mother for the betterment of the child, but the reverse can also be true. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) even notes that breastfeeding enhances maternal behavior and bonding.
I spoke with International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) Miranda Bonet to find out what the top mental health benefits of breastfeeding are in relation to the mother. Turns out, the practice isn't just for the good of your babies.
1. It Can Help You Get More Sleep
As it turns out, breastfeeding mothers get more, not less sleep, because their babies tend to sleep and wake in more predictable patterns, Bonet says. Also, parents who co-sleep (not bed share), tend to rise and rest together. Sleep is essential to good mental health, as Harvard noted that poor sleep habits can actually increase your risk of developing some mental illnesses.
2. Breastfeeding Reduces Inflammation
I know, what does inflammation have to do with mental health? As per Bonet, a study published in the International Breastfeeding Journal cites the cytokines (a type of secreted protein that affects surrounding cells) released in the last months of pregnancy put mothers at a greater risk for depression and breastfeeding seems to mitigate the effects of the cytokines in the maternal body. Big stuff, right?
3. It Helps You Bond
Just as the AAP noted, the prolactin and oxytocin that's released during the act of breastfeeding helps you bond with your baby, and the hormones can ease the symptoms of discontent that often arise in the aftermath of childbirth.
4. It Relieves Stress
Bonet says that the same anti-inflammatory properties that can decrease the effects of depression can do the same thing for stress, allowing you to put it in perspective. It's not a perfect panacea, but it's certainly something.
5. Mama Bear Powers: Activated
It turns out, one of the hormones released during the nursing process punches out the "flight" side of "fight or flight" when it comes to protecting your baby, even more so and with greater efficiency than the simple act of motherhood, noted Scientific American. It's the Mama Bear hormone, basically, and it's so strong it dominates all other instincts when it comes to saving your child — and the benefit lingers past infancy.
Of course, breastfeeding isn't right for everyone. If you're not breastfeeding, it doesn't mean these mental health benefits aren't attainable for you in another way. But if you're hoping there's something for you in all of this pumping and waking every two hours business, you got it.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.