We all know that breastfeeding is amazing. Not only does the composition of breastmilk change to suit your growing baby’s needs, nursing offers health benefits for both mum and child ― not least, you’ll boost your baby’s IQ and burn calories.
As most nursing mums can attest, breastfeeding provides you with an incredible feeling of love, calmness and pleasure ― “you’ll have to feel it yourself to understand!” says Ho Wei Ting, mum to Hannah, 1.
While Ho says she is a mother who is always on edge ― “I’m the sort who is constantly worrying about what she’s eating, whether she’s sick and so on,” ― breastfeeding actually calms her down in the middle of a frenetic day.
She explains “Almost every time, without fail, when I nurse her, I feel sleepy. Not the type of sleepy where I doze off because I’m exhausted, but it just puts me in this state of calm, with her rhythmic sucking.”
Breastfeeding is a wonderful way in which Mother Nature has equipped mums to focus on what’s important, so that stress doesn’t get in the way.
Ho isn’t imagining things. Breastfeeding does things to your brain that helps you feel good and be a better mother to your baby. Here are ways in which breastfeeding can alter your brain and its pathways.
1. You’re less stressed
The oxytocin that you produce when you breastfeed reduces your stress levels, so you’ll feel calmer and more relaxed. This is because oxytocin lowers blood pressure, even as it inhibits the release of the stress hormone glucocorticoid, according to The Alpha Parent.
The stress hormone levels of 10 lactating and 10 non-lactating women running on a treadmill were monitored in a study conducted by Margaret Altemus at Cornell University in the US. In the results, the lactating women released only half the amount of stress hormones compared to the non-lactating women.
Given the amount of things you have to deal with as a mum caring for a newborn, breastfeeding is a wonderful way in which Mother Nature has equipped mums to focus on what’s important, so that stress doesn’t get in the way.
2. You feel the love
Besides alleviating stress, oxytocin also increases a mother’s ability to love and to feel love. In fact, there is so much love that your body gets in sync with your nursing baby’s needs. New neurochemical pathways are forged such that your brain is in tune with how much milk your baby needs, such that it “alerts” your production of milk.
So, if you feel like you’re extremely sensitive to your baby’s needs ― like you know that she’ll need to be fed just before she cries ― this is your body being in tune with your baby. You know how your boobs start to leak when you hear a baby whimpering? That’s also thanks to all that oxytocin surging through your breast tissue.
And what happens when you’re separated from bubba? Some mums say they feel a sense of anxiety or panic ― a withdrawal symptom from being separated ― also a result of those neurochemical paths being forged.
Three more ways your brain has been changed by breastfeeding… next!
3. You feel pleasure
You’ve woken up for the nth time that night to a crying baby, and nothing seems to soothe her, except your boobs. As gruelling as these night-time experiences are, putting your baby to your breast actually creates feelings of pleasure, thanks to the hormone, dopamine. Dopamine is released alongside oxytocin, and it helps the mum to feel peaceful and relaxed.
For that reason, studies have shown that mums who nurse at night enjoy better sleep, as they are more relaxed and find it easier to dose off to sleep.
Breastfeeding mums are also less likely to develop postpartum or postnatal depression, according to a study published in the journal Maternal and Child Health. In it, mothers who breastfed their babies were 50 per cent less likely to suffer postnatal depression than those who chose not to. However, it must be noted that the women most at risk of developing postpartum depression were those who wanted to but were unable to breastfeed their babies.
As gruelling as these night-time experiences are, putting your baby to your breast actually creates feelings of pleasure, thanks to the hormone, dopamine.
4. You are more socially perceptive
Thanks to oxytocin, breastfeeding mums are more socially perceptive – they are better able to read non-verbal cues, and studies show that breastfeeding mums have an improved memory for human faces and positive social cues. This helps you to be more loving, attentive and empathetic to your baby.
In fact, the brains of breastfeeding mums showed greater activity in several regions, including the brain regions linked to parenting behaviour.
5. You get sharper
If you’ve been feeling fuzzy-brained since getting pregnant ― hello, it’s mummy brain! Those hormones, along with exhaustion, are giving you mum-nesia.
But there’s good news ― research from the American Psychological Association has found that the brains of new mothers bulk up in areas linked to motivation and behaviour. Harvard psychiatrist Dr John Ratey also notes that lactating mums had more glial cells, which support neurons by importing energy and exporting waste products. All this makes a new, nursing mum more perceptive and aware of what her baby needs.
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