Like so many moms, I tried hard to nurse my son from the beginning, but he just wouldn't latch. I ended up exclusively pumping for 14 months. I remember how emotional it was trying to breastfeed — I cried, he cried, my husband cried. But why does breastfeeding make you emotional — is it because it can be so damn hard sometimes? Is it something to do with hormones? Or maybe it's a little bit of both.
Generally, the hormones associated with breastfeeding are thought to help keep new moms feeling emotionally content and facilitate bonding. That's mostly due to the hormone prolactin, as Andrea Tran, a registered nurse and IBCLC, tells Romper.
"This hormone is often referred to as the 'mothering hormone,' and is the hormone primarily responsible for making milk," she says.
Tori Hamilton, an obstetrical nurse, IBCLC, LLL leader, and mom of three adds that prolactin is often at its highest levels in the night and early morning, when it produces feelings of well-being, calmness, and relaxation for mom. Hamilton also mentions oxytocin being a contributing factor to positive breastfeeding emotions.
"The release of oxytocin is triggered by your infant sucking, which then causes the muscles around the breast to contract, thereby pushing milk from the alveoli to the nipple," she says.
"Oxytocin has been known to reduce sensations of pain, assist with maternal bonding, decreased cortisol levels, and decreased anxiety."
There are of course times when the emotions involved in breastfeeding are less than positive. If you're pumping, Tran says that while you'll still have those high levels of prolactin and oxytocin, you may be more sleep deprived because you're having to do "double duty," and sleep deprivation can definitely make you emotional.
"She has to pump, feed and also clean the pump parts and bottles. I guess that makes it triple duty," Tran adds. This, this, this.
When breastfeeding-related emotions or sadness are overwhelming, however, Dysmorphic Milk Ejection Reflex (D-MER) could be the cause, according to Hamilton. "If a mom experiences D-MER, they are overcome with negative emotions when their milk lets down. This is caused by an abnormal drop in dopamine. These feelings can often be worked through with education, support and sometimes medications," she says.
"Another reason that moms may feel negative emotions when breastfeeding would be if they are experiencing difficulties and/or do not feel supported by their family or health care team. All moms deserve nonjudgmental, quality breastfeeding support so they can reach their goals," Hamilton says. That explains why I cried right along with my son when we were trying to figure out breastfeeding. My husband was super supportive, but I was having so much trouble and felt like a failure.
In regards to that, Hamilton says, "Counseling is an important component in the healing journey in cases of birth trauma as well as infant feeding challenges. Moms who choose or need to bottle feed may experience feelings of shame and guilt that need to be addressed. Infant feeding is so complex. The one thing we can all agree on is that moms deserve more support, no matter how they feed their babies!" Amen.
Breastfeeding definitely causes quite an array of emotions thanks to hormones and how difficult breastfeeding can sometimes be. Always reach out for help if you're feeling overwhelmed — whether it's a family member or a lactation consultant — and don't be afraid to talk to someone. Also, it's OK if you end up feeding your baby formula if it becomes too much. A happy and healthy mom is the best mom for baby. Good luck, mama.
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.
Andrea Tran, a registered nurse and IBCLC.
Tori Hamilton, an obstetrical nurse, IBCLC, LLL leader, and a mom of three.