Exhaustion seems to be synonymous with parenthood, but being perpetually tired can impact your parenting in a number of ways. So if you're nursing, it's worthwhile to look at how parental burnout affects mill supply, especially if you're having trouble meeting your breastfeeding goals.
A reported 60% of moms don’t breastfeed for as long as they planned to, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for reasons ranging from latching and lactation issues to lack of family support and unsupportive work policies. And since a 2017 study of 2,000 parents found that 13% surveyed — 12.9% of mothers and 11.6% of fathers — had experienced "high burnout," it stands to reason that exhaustion can impact a parent's ability to breastfeed.
Romper spoke with Devon Rae Tracy, a certified postpartum doula and breastfeeding counselor, and candice Echeverria and Candice James, breastfeeding experts and co-owners of GoldiLacts Lactation Consulting, to find out more about how parental burnout affects lactation.
“Many parents may be concerned that stress will impact the content of their milk or supply, because of the biological feedback system that breastfeeding is built upon,” Tracy says. “[But] as long as the breast is being stimulated by baby, via pump, or by hand expression, then your brain will continue to receive the message to release the hormones, prolactin and oxytocin, to make and move more milk.”
Tracy went on to explain that “there are images and documentation of folks breastfeeding in all kinds of conditions and crises, from refugee camps to natural disasters.” Some people assume that the stress is impacting lactation, but what really happens, Tracy says, is that baby is often brought to the breast less because of stress, and therefore the supply and demand system of breastfeeding is affected by the frequency of feeds, not by the amount of stress in a lactating parent.
"Even if there is no output or mama is disappointed in the amount of breast milk she is producing, keep demanding," James explains, "because in these moments, it's less about how much breast milk we see, and more about continuing to demand from your breasts and let them know mama needs more milk."
In cases with lactating parents who live with postpartum mood disorders, the supply and demand system of breastfeeding can also be impacted if they feel stressed or worried, which can also lead to changes in how often their child nurses, Tracy explains. So if you notice that you’re nursing your baby less frequently, or if your baby has less contact with your chest than usual, find ways to increase contact if you want to continue breastfeeding.
“Frequency is key in maintaining milk supply,” Tracy says. “So perhaps setting a reminder to nurse on your phone or in your planner might be ways to make sure baby is coming to the breast enough, or the breast is being stimulated often enough to maintain supply. It's important not to rely on lactation teas or supplements alone to maintain supply, as these are not evidence based and often anecdotal solutions, and some teas can even become toxic if [consumed] at too high a volume.”
Tracy reminds lactating parents that “breastfeeding should not be uncomfortable, and it should not add to your mental load in a negative way, though it may be challenging at times.” So it’s important to prioritize your mental health, no matter what. If you are too burn out, stressed out, or otherwise, consult with a health care provider and take the necessary steps to ensure your health and wellness.
Also, remember that breastfeeding and weaning can affect everyone in the entire family, Echeverria says. Therefore, it's important for families to communicate with each other about any changes that need to be made at home, so that parents can cope with mood changes due to stress.
"This will allow everyone to relax and ease into the breastfeeding relationship, therefore protecting mom’s milk supply and giving her the space to allow her body to function naturally," Echeverria says. “Surrounding yourself with a supportive network is vital to breastfeeding through stressful times. At the end of the day, mothers are more likely to continue breastfeeding when they have ample peer support.”
If you aren’t sure where to start or who to turn to, consider finding a local international board certified lactation consultant or certified lactation counselor to get the help you need.
As a postpartum support specialist, Echeverria uses a tool called the Mind Body Heart chart. The chart consists of three columns, one for a parent's mind, body, and heart. "That way, each day, she can look at her week as a whole, making sure she is doing something to feed each one of these areas in her life while also navigating her breastfeeding or weaning journey," she says. Parents who use this method can help visualize and balance their responsibilities with their co-parent. So if you're a parent dealing with burnout, an exercise like this can help you and your family find some harmony and balance.
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety during pregnancy, or in the postpartum period, contact the Postpartum Health Alliance warmline at (888) 724-7240, or Postpartum Support International at (800) 944-4773. If you are thinking of harming yourself or your baby, get help right away by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or dialing 911. For more resources, you can visit Postpartum Support International.