Breastfeeding: What’s In It For Mom? Essay, Research Paper
By this time, everyone on the planet knows that breast milk is good for babies. But what’s in it for Mom? As it turns out, plenty. The fact that breastfeeding is so good for mothers may be one of nature’s best-kept secrets.
Raging hormones are normal the first few weeks post-partum. During this time, many women experience the ‘baby blues’. The blues can strike both nursing and bottle-feeding moms, but the nursing mom may have a powerful assist thanks to her high oxytocin levels. Oxytocin, a powerful hormone that is stimulated each time the baby breastfeeds, is a relaxing and tranquilizing substance that pulses through the mother’s body during the milk release. Called ‘the hormone of love’ by researchers, it plays a role in bonding as a mother experiencing an oxytocin rush feels drowsy and deeply calm, promoting a peaceful state in which to fall in love with the baby.
Breastfeeding mothers continue to have an altered hormone state for as long as nursing continues. This is at least partially the result of suppressed menstruation. Unrestricted nursing can produce delays in the return of fertility for extended periods of time. Six months to a year is not unusual, and some nursing moms enjoy even longer breaks. During this time, iron stores are replenished and mothers are spared the mood swings of normal cycling. For women who experience PMS, this truly provides a vacation from added stress! (Note: Globally, breastfeeding is the most widely employed method for child-spacing. But no contraceptive method is fool-proof. Women often employ a back-up system of barrier contraception just to be sure.)
After feeling like the Goodyear Blimp for months, most pregnant women look forward to having their bodies back. It doesn’t happen immediately though, and that dough-boy look we all have the first six weeks postpartum may be part of the reason many women feel a bit depressed. A 1999 Time Magazine article about breastfeeding provided the following good news: “Nursing a baby may look pretty effortless, but it can burn up 500 calories a day – the equivalent of running about 5 miles.” Scientific studies have demonstrated that between three months and nine months postpartum, nursing mothers who get even mild exercise lose more weight than their bottle-feeding sisters. Moderate exercise is not only OK for the nursing mom, but it seems to benefit the milk supply, too. Just be sure to empty the breasts before exercise and wear a supportive bra.
Speaking of body image, those leaking, swollen breasts of the first month DO settle down. In an established lactation, women are only really aware of fullness if they go too long between feeds. Over time, lactating breasts return to a fairly normal size, although they maintain a rounder, firmer shape that many women (and their partners) find attractive.
Lower stress levels, a break from having monthly periods, and a nice looking body are great perks. But on a more serious level, there are some pretty compelling health advantages to breastfeeding as well. Due to metabolic changes influenced by hormones, urinary track health is improved during lactation, so nursing moms suffer fewer bladder infections. Some women with chronic diseases discover they enjoy improved health during lactation. For instance, insulin-dependant diabetics generally require less insulin while breastfeeding.
Long-term health benefits may be even more compelling than the short-term advantages of breastfeeding. Osteoporosis, or bone degeneration, is a disease that impacts the health of many older women. While it is true that nursing mothers lose some bone mass during lactation, the loss seems to trigger growth of new bone after the baby weans. This means that women who breastfeed continue to grow new bone mass long after their early 20’s, the time when bone growth otherwise ceases. Consequently, breastfeeding women enter old age with newer, stronger bone stores, significantly reducing their risk of brittle bone disease.
Breast cancer is a complex disease. Scientists are still discovering the multiple factors that trigger this much-feared scourge of women. What is known is that extended breastfeeding is associated with a lower risk of breast cancer. Studies suggest even better protection when a woman who breastfeeds was herself breastfed as an infant. So nursing our daughters, and encouraging our daughters to nurse, may help reduce their risk of breast cancer.
The cost of raising children keeps going up and up. It’s nice to know that family finances really benefit when mom decides to breastfeed. La Leche League, the international breastfeeding support organization, once calculated that a family could buy a major appliance (or two) with the money spent on 12 months of formula. Many mothers use some of this savings to hire house cleaning help, to treat the family to a vacation, or to purchase a gym membership for themselves. In more stressed households, these savings don’t go for extras, but may make a real difference in helping a family financially.
Best for baby and now the discovery that breastfeeding is best for Mom. Sounds like a win-win situation, especially when you factor in the experiential element. Breastfeeding is truly one of life’s sweet pleasures!