Can Stress Have A Negative Impact On Breastfeeding? 5 Important Things To Know

Can Stress Have A Negative Impact On Breastfeeding? 5 Important Things To Know

Having a new baby causes a significant change in lifestyle.

You’re suddenly no longer the centre of your own universe, your baby is.

With this new and considerable change to your life, a certain amount of stress is to be expected.

Can Stress Have A Negative Impact On Breastfeeding?

“Stress” is a broad term used to represent anything which threatens our body’s ability to maintain a relatively stable equilibrium (homeostasis).

While a brief stress response can be helpful, such as get us out of danger, prolonged stress responses can lead to tissue damage and disease.

We are all unique and experience individual differences in our stress responses to the same situation.

What is stressful for one person may not be stressful for another.

But what about in terms of breastfeeding? Can stress have a negative impact on breastfeeding?

Here are 5 important things to know about breastfeeding and stress.

#1: Stress May Have An Indirect Impact On Breastfeeding

Stressed mothers may be more likely to get less sleep, suffer illness, and increase their caffeine and alcohol intake. Any of these factors may lead a baby to not breastfeed as often or for long enough. In turn, this could reduce a mother’s milk supply.

In such situations, it’s not the stress which directly affected supply but the stressful factors leading to a change in breastfeeding behaviour.

#2: Milk Production Can Continue Even In Very Stressful Situations

It’s important to note that a mother’s milk supply won’t simply ‘dry up’ due to stress.

Even in very stressful situations, mothers can continue to make milk. For example mothers can continue to make milk even in war zones or other emergency situations.

#3: Stress Doesn’t Seem To Impact Milk Supply After Preterm Birth

Giving birth prematurely can be a stressful event.

Research has looked at whether psychological stress in women who gave birth prematurely impacted milk supply at six weeks. In this study, psychological stress was measured by behavioural responses (e.g. perceived stress, sleep difficulty, and fatigue).

No apparent effect of the mothers’ perceived psychological stress on milk supply at six weeks was found. Factors such as income, gestation, early milk supply, frequency of breast stimulation and supplementation accounted for most of the variability in milk supply at six weeks.

Other research found relaxation techniques increased milk supply in a group of mothers of premature babies.

#4: Stress Can Negatively Impact The Let-Down Reflex

The let-down reflex is an important part of breastfeeding. It’s what makes the milk in the breast available to the baby.

Upon nipple stimulation (e.g. when the baby starts sucking at the breast or with expressing), the hormone oxytocin gets released from the pituitary gland in the brain. It gets released in a pulsatile fashion, consisting of short 3-4 second bursts into the blood.

When this occurs, the milk ducts shorten and widen, increasing the pressure inside the breast, allowing for milk to be removed from the breast.

Research has found stress can delay and inhibit the normal pulsatile release of the oxytocin (the let-down reflex). For any breastfeeds where this occurs, it’s possible that less milk may get removed from the breast.

If this was to occur for the odd breastfeed here and there, any effect on milk supply is likely to be short-lived.

However, if stress was to negatively affect the let-down reflex time and time again, then there would be a greater likelihood of supply being affected.

#5: Breastfeeding Can Help Reduce Stress

When breastfeeding is going well, breastfeeding can help reduce a mother’s stress by helping to turn off the stress response.

Hence, if breastfeeding problems are being experienced, seeking prompt help, such as from an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, can really help.

If you are worried about you levels of stress, it’s important to seek professional support such as from PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia).

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Renee Kam is a mother of two daughters, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), a physiotherapist, author of 'The Newborn Baby Manual' and an Australian Breastfeeding Association Counsellor. In her spare time, Renee enjoys spending time with family and friends, horse riding, running and reading.

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