“Often, mothers see breastfeeding as martyrdom to be endured for their baby's health. If they stop early, they may feel guilty about depriving the baby of some health benefits, but their guilt is often soothed by well-meaning people who reassure them that ‘The baby will do just as well on formula.’ Perhaps if they knew that continuing to breastfeed is also good for their own health, some mothers might be less likely to quit when they run into problems.” La Leche League International
When I gave up on breastfeeding my son at just four days old, I felt like I had failed him. I felt guilty, I felt inadequate, I felt like I wasn’t doing what was best for him. What I didn't realize at the time is that in giving up breastfeeding, I failed myself, as well. I didn’t do what was best for me.
I’ve learned so much about parenting since my son, but one of the most important areas of education for me has been breastfeeding. We all hear about how many amazing benefits breastfeeding has for babies; but we don’t often (or at least, not often enough, in my opinion) highlight the very many benefits it has for mothers, as well.
Oxytocin. After birth, putting baby to breast releases this remarkable hormone which not only signals the breasts to release milk (let down), but also produces contractions which help the uterus shrink back to its pre-pregnancy state. Oxytocin is also known as a “feel good” hormone, and the more your body releases, the more relaxed and content you feel. It’s released each time your baby latches on.
Reduces the risk of breast, uterine, and ovarian cancer. The female body produces less estrogen when it’s lactating, and studies suggest that less estrogen decreases the chances of cancer occurring. Chances of breast cancer in particular can be decreased by as much as 25 percent. The longer a mother breastfeeds, the lower the risk of cancer.
Lower rates of postpartum depression. Studies have shown that women who breastfeed have lower rates of anxiety and stress.
I’d like to add that these are merely studies—I know that every woman who breastfeeds does not avoid PPD, and in fact have known mothers who experienced PPD because of their negative experiences with early breastfeeding. But I firmly believe that breastfeeding is not to blame—rather, lack of real support, education, and the presence of booby traps are the culprits. This was my experience with my first born, and I’ve seen it happen to other women as well.
Interruption of menses. Alright, this isn’t necessarily a huge deal for everyone, but it has been for me! I didn’t get my period until my first daughter was a year old; my baby is almost five months old, and I’m still happily period-free. It’s said that this is nature’s birth control, but I wouldn’t bank on that, since you can easily get pregnant even when you’re not menstruating.
Burn, baby, burn. Breastfeeding on demand can burn as many as 500 calories a day! It’s been shown that breastfeeding mothers tend to return to their pre-pregnancy weight more easily.
I mention the above cautiously, because this is not the case for everyone. In fact, the body tends to hold on to a few extra pounds (to keep up milk production) while breastfeeding, and based on how much weight you gained during pregnancy, your body type, etc., you may not reach your pre-pregnancy weight for some time (if at all). And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Rigid dieting during breastfeeding not only runs the risk of interfering with your milk supply, it’s unhealthy for you, as your body will take what it needs to nourish your baby and leave you with little else.
That said, though I don’t believe that weight loss should be motivation to breastfeed, it’s an awesome side effect if it works out for you (and if it doesn’t, just look at the list above! There are still so many amazing benefits!).
Other benefits include lowered risk of osteoporosis, lowered risk of type 2 diabetes, lowered risk of cardiovascular disease, and lowered risk of rheumatoid arthritis.
Lastly, breastfeeding is free. I’ve done it both ways, and even with the purchase of breast pads, a breast pump, some pump accessories, and a few bottles, I have spent close to nothing breastfeeding my daughters, compared to the hundreds of dollars I spent formula feeding my son—and we switched to cow’s milk when he turned one. Continuing on with “toddler” formula doubles, even triples the cost, depending on how long the formula is used.
I believe that if this information were made more readily available to pregnant mothers, they would be twice as likely to breastfeed—or at least stick with it when it gets a bit hard. After nine months of pregnancy and a difficult birth, I felt like I had given so much to my son, and I couldn’t give any more. I was so tired, and I was so stressed. Even though I knew I could do better than formula for him, had I been aware of how good breastfeeding was for me, it would have given me the motivation to keep going.
When you’re in over your head with a new baby, losing sleep, grappling with new emotions, a new body, and a completely different life, it can indeed feel like martyrdom to continue breastfeeding your baby. If every woman had this information at her fingertips, maybe she would feel empowered and supported to keep on going.
I am the proof. Though much of my confidence has come from the wisdom of having more than one child, most of my peace and contentment has come from the way I parent; from the things I’ve done differently, and better. Breastfeeding is at the top of the list.
Breast is best. For babes, and for moms.