Does Stress Impact Breast Milk Quality and Supply?

As a new parent, you may be feeling overwhelmed with all the changes and new responsibilities. It's important to know that stress can impact your breast milk - Learn more below!

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According to the American Institute of Stress, 77% of people regularly experience stress-induced physical symptoms. For new mothers who recently gave birth, that number is likely much higher. As magical as being a new mom is, it also comes with a lot of new responsibilities, transitions, and lifestyle and schedule changes, which may include less sleep during those first few months with your little one.

Unfortunately, increased stress levels can negatively affect your breast milk. Here’s how:

Stress Impacts Your Let-Down

When a baby nurses, he or she begins by suckling to stimulate a let-down where your milk flows freely to your little one:

  • To stimulate a let-down, cells around the alveoli contract and send milk to your milk ducts.
  • Oxytocin stimulates your milk ducts to widen and allow milk to flow from your breasts.
  • If you feel stressed, your body will inhibit the release of oxytocin.
  • As a result, milk will still flow to your milk ducts, but these ducts won’t fully widen. The effect is similar to a kinked straw, where there is plenty of liquid but it can’t flow freely.

If oxytocin is inhibited, you may notice your baby suckling harder to stimulate more milk flow.

Stress May Affect Cortisol Levels

Cortisol is your body’s primary stress hormone, and it controls much of your feelings. Studies have shown that breast milk from distressed mothers may contain higher levels of cortisol. As your stress level rises, the level of cortisol in your breast milk also increases. When your baby nurses, they may consume some of this extra cortisol.

The good news is that scientists don’t yet know the long-term effects of secondhand cortisol or even whether its presence in a nursing baby can be described as stress. In fact, a 2018 study concluded that there was no correlation discovered between high cortisol and increased fussiness. If your baby seems more agitated when you feel most stressed, it may be because they can feel that you are upset and are therefore feeling uneasy too.

With that in mind, breast milk is still the ideal food for a newborn baby. If you are frequently stressed, try using relaxation techniques to reduce these feelings while ensuring your little one still gets all the wonderful benefits of your milk.

Stress May Impact Mealtimes

Stress also has indirect effects on your breast milk supply. If you’re stressed, it’s likely because you’re very busy – which can cause you to unintentionally eat and drink less often. You might skip breakfast or find yourself working right through lunch. Because breastfeeding requires extra calories, women who eat less may produce less milk as the body conserves calories and may experience depletion of important vitamins and minerals.

To ensure you’re properly hydrated and consuming enough calories, consider setting a reminder alarm on your phone throughout the day to take a break for a snack, meals, or even for a quick water break. If you’re a working parent, you may wish to block off times in your calendar each day for meals or quick snack or water breaks so you won’t be disturbed. If you’re too busy to cook regularly, consider ordering meal-delivery kits as needed to simplify mealtimes (and not be overly dependent on fast food or pricy food delivery service).

Stress Affects Feeding Frequency

Stress is a normal part of new motherhood, but the transition back to work after having your baby can be especially difficult for some – and even impact breast milk supply. This is because breast milk is produced on a simple supply-and-demand basis, which means that the more you pump or nurse, then the more milk your body will make. When you’re away from your baby for prolonged periods, using a double-electric breast pump is critical to maintaining a strong milk supply that meets your baby’s feeding needs.

Breastfeeding moms who transition back to work have a few options to help them manage their milk supply while away from their little one. Many find value in creating a pumping schedule to help them maintain consistent pumping times each day. Others, if able, may tweak their work schedules or baby feeding schedules to help find a balance that makes sense. You know your baby and your body best, so give yourself the grace and flexibility to discover the routine that works for everyone!

Conclusion

While eliminating all stress from your life may not always be possible, there are healthy ways to manage and reduce stress:

  • Practicing meditation or yoga, going for walks, and eating healthy are great ways to start.
  • Communicate regularly with family members, friends, managers, and colleagues about how they can help.
  • Finally, having a mindfulness app at your fingertips can also help to minimize everyday stresses and anxieties that parenthood – and life! – can bring. Expectful, for example, features the largest library of meditations and sleep content for pregnancy, fertility, and parenthood to help nurture mental and emotional health during these changing times.

These first few months of your baby’s life will be memorable – and, believe it or not, it’ll go by in the blink of an eye! Be sure to remember to find time and enjoy these moments while they are here.