Before our little ones arrive, many of us imagine eventually settling into a quaint and blissful breastfeeding experience. Baby nestled into our arms, quietly suckling until their little bellies are full. Baby is happy. Mom is happy.
But for most of us new moms, even if we eventually get into a rhythm, breastfeeding is a physical, mental, and emotional expedition—like scaling a mountain…in the snow……without a puffy winter coat…and no cell phone service. In fact, 67% of us report feeling really stressed about it.
While the physical challenges of breastfeeding are visible—painful nipples, engorged breasts, leaky boobs—the mental and emotional stresses are silent lurkers. And ones we wrestle with the most.
The thing is that research shows that there are strong connections between a mom’s stress level and her breastfeeding outcomes. In other words, the more stressed you are, the more likely you are to experience bumps on the breastfeeding road, whether it’s with regard to starting to breastfeed, how long you breastfeed, the exclusivity of breastfeeding, or quality (i.e. nutrient density) of your breastmilk.
So the mental and emotional stress of breastfeeding—and postpartum in general—can be counterproductive to milk production…therefore exacerbating an issue that is contributing to your stress. Not helpful, right?
If this sounds like a vicious cycle, it can be. You may worry the baby is getting enough to eat. This stress could affect milk let-down and production. Your milk supply seems off. You’re now even more worried the baby is getting enough to eat and now you’re blaming yourself for low supply. And repeat.
First of all, this isn’t your fault. Our minds can be tricky, unhelpful places and we all—repeat, we all—struggle.
But there are things you can do to help prevent yourself from entering this cycle in the first place.
And for those who struggled at some point during your feeding journey and fed your baby another way that was best for your family, that deserves a lot of celebration and support. This information is not to add to any feelings of blame or shame or guilt—the opposite! We share this in hopes that moms everywhere take it as a reminder to prioritize yourself and your mental health along the whole motherhood journey. And as you’ll find out below, sometimes a happier, healthier you means stopping breastfeeding all together.
Here are ways to boost your mood…and help your boobs, whether you’re expecting or postpartum.
1. Make a Plan A, B…and C when it comes to feeding your little one.
Research suggests that the risk of developing perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) increases when expectations differ from reality. In other words, when real life doesn’t go according to plan. This is true when it comes to our expectations for how we feed our babies. So, try to imagine your ideal scenario, but then be prepared for alternatives in case any number of hiccups with you, baby, or life occur along the way.
Try to educate yourself on the basics of breastfeeding, pumping, and formula feeding and have the supplies in place for each. We also encourage moms to be emotionally and mentally open for these alternatives by reading or listening to stories of other moms who have had alternative feeding journeys to know that there are many healthy ways to feed your baby.
2. Before the baby comes, try do some research about where you might find lactation support—1:1 and/or online courses.
We all hope that the feeding journey goes smoothly, but bumps happen, especially in the first few weeks postpartum as your body is healing from childbirth, your milk supply is getting established, and the baby is learning to eat. Remember, they’ve never done this before either! Knowing where you can get support when things go sideways can help. Even meeting with a lactation expert prior to birth, or taking courses online, can be helpful to start thinking about a feeding and/or pumping schedule that works best for you. Research shows that professional lactation instruction and support does increase the duration of breastfeeding. What’s more is that connecting with a lactation expert is an opportunity to engage with another compassionate, caring human, which has its own mood-boosting benefits when new motherhood can feel so isolating. Many hospitals offer lactation support—if yours does, we recommend you use it!
3. Try to take a breath…actually, try to breathe deeply…
When you’re anxious and stressed (i.e. feeling the fight or flight response), all non-essential body functions—like producing milk—are reduced so you can survive. Research suggests that calming the sympathetic nervous system can amplify your milk production. The easiest way to do that is through breathwork. There are loads of methods out there, but one guiding principle is to make your exhalations longer than your inhalations. To start, breathe in for 4 counts in and breathe out for 8 counts. Do this during your pumping or feeding session to enhance your flow. For more guided and clinically-validated calming practices for any challenging situations postpartum, download the Canopie app.
4. Practice seeing success.
Being intentionally mindful of how you want your goals to manifest can help you overcome difficult moments and obstacles that stand in your way. Olympic athletes use visualization to achieve their personal bests, so given that new moms are essentially Olympic athletes in the sports of childbirth and motherhood, visualization can be a very powerful tool. If you’d like more support in visualizing success and achieving goals at any point in your mom journey through clinically-proven practices, check out mindfulness exercises in the Canopie app.
5. FYI: Pumping still gives you the feel-good hormones.*
For any number of factors, nursing from the boob may not be in the cards. But pumping may be. Pumping can still support a positive boob-mood feedback loop. Research shows that oxytocin—the hormone produced by the hypothalamus of your brain and that elevates your mood—is still released during pumping. It is released from the brain during let-down, so know that if nursing isn’t in your feeding playbook, you can still reap the benefits during a pumping session.
6. Finally, remember that no matter what happens, you’re doing awesome.
Breastfeeding, pumping, formula feeding….these don’t define you as a mother…or you as a human. While it seems like a momentous decision at the time, it’s one of many thousands of decisions you’ll make as a parent in the coming years. Being kind to yourself when it starts to feel hard is the best thing you can do for your emotional and mental well-being, and to model for your little one who will one day encounter tough things, too.
*For those who suffer from dysphoric milk ejection reflex (DMER), let-down, whether you’re nursing or pumping, can result in a negative cascade of emotions of grief, anger, and sadness rather than a positive one. Know that DMER affects 10% of new moms, and there are additional practices you can do to support your mental and emotional health during this time. You can read more about them here.
Anne Wanlund, CEO and co-founder of Canopie is a maternal mental health advocate and mom of a spunky toddler. Canopie’s signature programs use clinically-validated techniques to make calmer, healthier, and more resilient moms in just 12 days—for only 12 minutes a day. For access to the Canopie app for free, go here and use the access code HATCH22.