If pregnant people and new mothers had a dollar for every time someone said, “It’s just your hormones,” they’d never have to go back to work. Maybe it’s funny at first, but after a while, it starts to sound like a bad excuse or a cop-out for not knowing what’s actually going on. Don’t worry. We got you. Here’s what goes on when it comes to breastfeeding and hormones.
Breastfeeding hormones during pregnancy
As annoying as it may be, there’s a good reason for blaming everything on hormones. Because it’s true: In addition to creating a life, most pregnant bodies will also prepare to sustain that life by creating milk. And that requires a huge amount of work from your hormones, which will definitely affect your mood and behavior.
Estrogen and Progesterone
During pregnancy, Estrogen and Progesterone levels are high. They have to be high to maintain the pregnancy and help the placenta and fetus develop properly. Both also play an essential role in preparing breast tissue for milk. And they do that by blocking rising levels of Prolactin from telling your breasts to release the milk.
But those high hormone levels can also have some adverse effects on the pregnant parent. For example, high Estrogen levels are suspected to be part of the cause of morning sickness and other early symptoms of pregnancy.
Prolactin and Oxytocin
You may already know that Prolactin is the hormone most closely associated with breastfeeding. And, as we mentioned earlier, Prolactin is also on the rise during pregnancy. But, since the baby isn’t born yet, Prolactin prepares you for breastfeeding by aiding the development of new breast tissue. So, the reason breasts get bigger during pregnancy is, in fact, due to hormones.
Oxytocin is famous for being the feel-good hormone. But it’s also the hormone that kicks off the rest of the hormonal changes that come next. Most significantly, it plays a vital role in labor. Yup, turns out that the feel-good hormone doesn’t always feel so good. It’s responsible for the contractions and surges that help get the baby out. And that signals the next bout of hormonal changes.
Breastfeeding hormones during labor and birth
Immediately after you deliver your baby and placenta – and sometimes just before – hormone levels change quickly and dramatically. These drastic changes are at least part of the reason some people experience uncontrollable bouts of shaking during, and just after, labor. But the dramatic fluctuations have a specific purpose.
Estrogen and Progesterone levels fall because your body doesn’t need to maintain those high levels after the baby is out. Without those two hormones in the way, Prolactin can do its job, which is telling the body it can now begin to release milk.
And Oxytocin will start feeling good again… Sort of. When you hold your baby, high levels of Oxytocin will help you bond. But, it will also continue to make your uterus contract – yes, even after giving birth – which helps decrease the amount of bleeding you experience in the days following labor. This tends to be virtually painless for new parents. But if you’ve had a baby before, it can be pretty uncomfortable.
As sadistic as some of that might sound, you want your body to go through these shifts. Why? Because they help you recover and, if you’re going with breastfeeding, help prepare your body to feed your baby. You can actually help tell your body to go through these shifts post-birth. Here’s how:
- Have plenty of skin-to-skin with your baby as soon as possible after birth
- Attempt to breastfeed your baby as soon as possible after birth
Doing those two things will help increase the amount of Oxytocin your body produces. And it also helps ensure that you can produce the milk necessary to feed your baby.
Breastfeeding and hormones
In the early days of breastfeeding, things continue to change drastically. At first, the breasts produce a tiny amount of colostrum, which is usually dark yellow or orange in color and thick in consistency. Within about a week, most people start producing way more milk than their new baby can hold in their teeny tiny stomach. In this phase, breastfeeding and hormones are extremely closely linked, with Prolactin running the show.
Over the next few weeks, Prolactin will take a backseat and your body will slowly begin to create milk based on supply and demand. The more often the breasts are emptied, the more milk your body will make.
If you want to get fancy, the proper names for how your milk supply is determined in the early days versus after a few weeks are endocrine control and autocrine control. Endocrine control means that hormones determine milk production. Autocrine control means that it’s determined by stimulation and supply and demand.
The let-down and Oxytocin
Even after your supply has more or less switched to autocrine control, breastfeeding and hormones continue to be closely linked. Oxytocin levels, in particular, help trigger the let-down reflex. That is not as upsetting as it sounds.
The let-down reflex is a posh name for the action that allows milk to flow freely from the breast, which happens when Oxytocin levels increase. And it feels different for everyone. For example, some describe it as a tingling sensation, while others may feel nothing at all.
The let-down can be triggered in a number of ways. Some find their let-down can be triggered by hearing their baby cry, smelling their baby, or simply thinking about their baby. Others need the physical stimulation of suckling for a couple of minutes to get the milk flowing.
So, why are we going on and on about the let-down? Well, the let-down is one of the few times you can see – and possibly feel – your hormones changing and working in real-time. You can actually see how much the functioning of your body is affected by Oxytocin fluctuation. And we think that’s pretty cool.
Wait, what? Weren’t we talking about what happens after pregnancy? Well, you might have heard that breastfeeding can be a form of birth control. That’s because Prolactin is also thought to suppress ovulation… For a while… In some people… Maybe…
The truth is you can still get pregnant while breastfeeding, though the likelihood is significantly reduced if you are breastfeeding exclusively. Unprotected sex is always a gamble, but because most women don’t get their period for at least a few weeks after they give birth, it’s assumed that they haven’t ovulated and, therefore, can’t get pregnant.
Here’s the thing: People with periods bleed after ovulation. So, unless you’re actively tracking all of your body’s signs of ovulation, the only way to know whether you’re ovulating is either getting a period or a positive pregnancy test. And the timeline for when you’ll start ovulating again varies from person to person and even from pregnancy to pregnancy.
Our advice: Don’t rely solely on breastfeeding for birth control, unless you’re trying to get pregnant.
Regular rises in Oxytocin levels make you feel good. Why, then, do so many women experience baby blues and postpartum depression?
There’s a good chance that the drastic change in Estrogen and Progesterone levels after birth, alongside their consistent and comparatively low levels for weeks afterward, may have something to do with it. But the truth is, researchers haven’t entirely worked that one out yet. Shocking, no?
Mood swings are also common in the days and weeks after birth. Add to that the sleep deprivation and stress of caring for a new baby – both of which have their own separate effects on hormones – and it’s no wonder new parents feel low emotionally.
Regardless of the proposed reasons for the so-called baby blues, everyone deserves support. Because that name in no way describes how this actually feels. If you’re down, really down, for extended periods, be sure to tell your primary healthcare provider. They can help point you toward resources that can help you get through it.
Consider also telling a trusted friend or family member who can check on you and lend a hand when needed. Finally, there are also a variety of online resources, information, and groups that can provide additional support. The more support and strategies you can find that will work for you, the better.
Hormones after breastfeeding
Weaning can be a challenge for many families and often comes with a lot of conflicting emotions. Many women report feeling relief, guilt, wistfulness, and a list of other emotions all at the same time.
Now, part of the reason for that is it’s just plain difficult! Closing the door on such an intimate experience with your baby–whatever the reason–is a huge adjustment for everyone. It’s absolutely normal to feel a whole range of emotions.
The other reason for all of those feelings is–you guessed it–yet another shift in hormone levels! Just when you thought it was all over…
Prolactin and Oxytocin
If you’ve been breastfeeding for several months, you’ve been feeling the calming, warm, fuzzy effects of Prolactin and Oxytocin for some time now. You and your body may have become accustomed to their effects without even realizing it.
When less milk is removed from your breast, you produce less milk, and that means less Prolactin. Less time spent breastfeeding also means less Oxytocin. For many women, this causes extra mood swings on top of how they already feel about weaning their baby.
But that’s not all.
Estrogen and Progesterone
Remember when we talked about Prolactin suppressing ovulation? Well, as you can probably guess, weaning also signals your body to get back into the normal rhythm of things. So, cue Estrogen and Progesterone!
That’s right. Your body starts reverting to the pre-pregnancy monthly ebb and flow of hormones and the resulting period. So, if your menstrual cycle symptoms typically include mood swings, you can assume they’ll also return.
If you feel like you’ve got whiplash from the intense hormonal shifts, you’re not alone. After completely stopping breastfeeding, you can expect your hormone levels to return to baseline after about three months. But, please keep in mind that everybody is different. It may take your body more – or less – time to stabilize.
Tips for coping with breastfeeding and hormone changes
Sometimes it feels like your hormones are in the driver’s seat and you’re just along for the ride. And it can be really frustrating when “It’s just your hormones” is the only answer you get, when what you really need is help. So, here are our best tips:
- Embrace the changes: When you fight your body, or resent it for doing what it’s supposed to do naturally, it makes everything way worse. Embrace the physical changes. Celebrate the fact that all of these changes are allowing you to bring life into the world and sustain it. Embrace your emotions and accept them for what they are. Cry when you feel like crying. Ask for space when you’re angry or sad.
- Try to keep perspective: Know that these changes won’t last forever and you’re not alone – even though it feels like it on those late nights with a crying baby. Humans have been raising children for millennia, so it’s quite literally in your DNA to make it through this. You totally got this.
- Cuddle often: Just because you’re stopping breastfeeding doesn’t mean the cuddles have to stop. Cuddling and skin-to-skin contact also produce Oxytocin, which can help alleviate sadness associated with weaning.
- Wean gradually: Instead of quitting cold turkey, drop just one feed per week. Weaning this way can help ease you and your baby through the weaning process and reduce the negative emotional effects of weaning.
- Ask for help: If, at any time along your breastfeeding journey, you have questions, or are feeling low, hopeless, or unsure, please ask for help. Ask your doctor for a referral. Ask for a second or third opinion. Ask a friend to watch the baby while you have a break. You don’t have to do this alone.
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