There are so many benefits to breastfeeding your baby. And no doubt you’ve heard about them since the day you announced your pregnancy.
But did you know that breastfeeding can reward you in ways that you least expected? Yes, you read correctly. According to The American Academy of Pediatrics, “Both short and long term health benefits accrue to mothers who breastfeed and these benefits begin shortly after birth.”
“The oxytocin that’s released while breastfeeding helps your uterus to contract quicker (expelling any bits of blood or blood clots), and shrink back to its normal size after giving birth,” explains Cindy Homewood, clinic sister and co-owner of Bowwood Baby Clinic in Cape Town.
“As a result, the amount of postpartum bleeding that you have will be reduced,” she says. Breastfeeding also delays the return of fertility in some women by suppressing ovulation, and thus works as a contraceptive too. But it’s not foolproof and this is why most moms are advised to go onto the mini-pill or IUD (intrauterine device) at their six-week gynaecological check-up, just to be safe.
Read: Are you ashamed of your post-baby body?
The road to health
So many new moms find it hard to slow down and take it easy, but breastfeeding will encourage them to rush around less and to sit down and spend time with baby.
“Resting is so important for the health and wellbeing of a new mom who needs to recuperate after giving birth,” says Cindy. Similarly, a healthy diet that includes plenty of water is vital after giving birth and breastfeeding encourages this because “moms often feel thirsty while feeding and are usually very health conscious.
They’re very careful about what they consume as it has a direct effect on them and their growing baby.”
As far as losing the baby weight goes, the jury is still out among experts on whether or not breastfeeding helps. While research has indicated that breastfeeding helps moms return to their pre-baby weight faster than if they weren’t breastfeeding, evidence is inconclusive because studies tend to have many confounding factors, such as diet and exercise.
Try: Your 10-minute DIY health check
“While many breastfeeding women do lose weight (as making milk burns kilojoules), others develop ferocious appetites, or take supplements that have an increased sugar content, which makes it harder for them to burn fat.
It really does depend on the individual. What we aim for is a balance of healthy eating habits and gentle exercise,” says Cindy.
The US National Institutes of Health reviewed more than 9 000 study abstracts and concluded that women who didn’t breastfeed or who stopped breastfeeding early on had a higher risk of postpartum anxiety and depression.
The thinking and research behind the psychological benefits of breastfeeding is that if it’s a success, it’s good for both the mind and the soul.
“Oxytocin, the hormone released during breastfeeding (also known as the love drug) gives moms an endorphin
rush (or high) and improves mood considerably,” explains Cindy. Prolactin, the milk making hormone, appears to produce a special calmness in mothers too.
Not only does breastfeeding and skin to skin contact with your baby encourage special bonding, it also boosts self esteem and confidence, leaving new moms with positive mothering skills.
“Moms feel so proud when they see that it’s their milk that’s making their babies grow and keeping them alive. They feel empowered and secure in the knowledge that their baby is getting the absolute best in nutrition and good immunity,” she says.
Basics made easy
Make no mistake about it, breastfeeding is not always easy and it doesn’t always come naturally. But once you’ve achieved a good latch and overcome the initial hurdles such as full or engorged breasts and any discomfort that you might have felt, it can become a pleasure to do.
It has so many practical benefits too. “Unlike bottles, your breasts don’t need to be cleaned and sterilised before every feed. Breastmilk is always the perfect temperature – you don’t have to heat anything up in the middle of the night. And it’s free,” says Cindy.
Breastfeeding moms can also travel lightly, and don’t have to pack their bags too carefully before going out. If you decide to stay out longer than anticipated, then you don’t have to worry about not having milk for your baby; it’s always ready, available and the perfect temperature.
Also read: Play and learn with your baby
In the long run
Mothers who breastfeed are at a significantly lower risk of suffering a heart attack, or developing breast cancer and hypertension than women who do not, suggests a 2013 study published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology.
The study evaluated the effects of breastfeeding on five maternal health conditions: breast cancer, premenopausal ovarian cancer, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and myocardial infarction (heart attack).
The study findings indicated that if 90 percent of mothers were able to breastfeed as recommended (for 12 months after each birth), American women might be spared over 53 000 cases of hypertension, roughly 14 000 heart attacks and nearly 5 000 cases of breast cancer.
Additionally, in a 2014 study of more than 7 000 older Chinese women published in the journal Rheumatology, breastfeeding – especially for a longer duration – was shown to be associated with a lower risk of rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
Yet another good reason to persevere, we think. Because once you get into the swings of things, breastfeeding is really good for your baby and it comes with a myriad of advantages for you.