Breastfeeding is taking social media by storm. But whether it’s a young mom cleverly responding to requests that she “cover up,” or Chrissy Teigen pumping every last drop of her breast milk, the stories don’t seem to answer the question: What happens to your body when you breastfeed?
The process is fueled by four hormones in the female body: estrogen, progesterone, prolactin, and oxytocin. The first two, estrogen and progesterone, trigger milk ducts to grow and cause milk-producing cells — alveoli — to multiply. Next, prolactin tells the alveoli to make milk, and, finally, oxytocin prompts the muscles around the alveoli to contract, which moves milk into the ducts.
During pregnancy and in the first few days after birth, the breasts produce colostrum, a thick, yellow milk that — owing to its nutritional value — has earned the moniker “liquid gold.” Colostrum is packed with antibodies that help shield newborns from dangerous infections. About three to five days after a woman gives birth, estrogen and progesterone levels begin to drop, causing the colostrum to change into mature milk. Although it may appear thinner than those first few days of milk, that milk contains the perfect amount of nutrients the baby needs.
New moms who find the experience soothing — both for themselves and the baby — are probably responding to the rising levels of prolactin and oxytocin, which can have a calming effect overall. Some women have even described feeling “euphoric” during breastfeeding, which makes up for some of the more difficult side effects (such as sore nipples).
Although breastfeeding is enjoyable for some women, it’s not always an easy routine to maintain.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusively breastfeeding for up to six months and continuing to breastfeed for one year or longer (while adding solid food). Although many women plan to breastfeed as recommended, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 60 percent don’t continue breastfeeding for as long as they had planned.
A variety of constraints can hinder a new mom’s ability to continue breastfeeding, including lack of family support, unhelpful hospital practices and policies, problems with lactation and latching, or unsupportive work policies and lack of parental leave. The last issue is exacerbated by the fact the U.S. has no federal law mandating paid leave for mothers — making the U.S. the only developed country without one. As a result, many new moms must return to work before they may be ready to and are stuck juggling work while also attempting to pump breastmilk.
Hopefully, in the future, the U.S. will follow other countries’ lead and offer more support to new moms. But until then, it’s important to stay informed. To find support or more information about breastfeeding, either speak with a lactation consultant in your area or visit CDC.gov.
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