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August 4, 2020
By Andrea Tran RN, BSN, MA, IBCLC
You may have heard that stress can result in a decreased milk supply. But is that really true? If it is true, is there anything that a mom can do about it? We’ll address these questions and even share some good news—that breastfeeding can actually have a protective effect against stress.
While it is common to read that stress can cause decreased milk supply, there really is not good data to back up that claim. That doesn’t mean that there is no effect on milk supply from stress. It means that currently the effect of stress and anxiety on milk production has not been well researched. The research that has been published on stress and milk supply is very dated. Also, many of the studies on stress and milk supply have been done only on animals.
Mothers have reported anecdotally experiencing a decrease in supply during stressful life events. There could be a variety of reasons for this. Just because something has not been researched does not mean that it doesn’t happen.
It is known that both mental stress and physical stress can result in a diminished let-down reflex. This happens because stress decreases how much oxytocin is released in response to a baby suckling. There is the potential that this could result in the breasts not emptying as thoroughly. A decreased milk supply can happen if there are repeated feedings or pumping sessions where there is inadequate emptying.
Studies have shown that mothers who identify themselves as feeling stressed had a delay in their milk coming in. Of course this delay might then lead to more stress, which is understandable but not helpful. To break this cycle and resolve the issue faster, you can use the stress reduction techniques described below.
It is also known that a physical stress such as excessive blood loss during childbirth can cause a delay in the milk coming in. Depending on how long his delay lasts a baby may require supplementation for a brief period of time. While this can add to feeling stressed, remember that many new moms that supplement go on to have successful breastfeeding experiences. If you’re concerned about the effect supplementing might have on your breastfeeding success, a lactation consultant can give you guidance and confidence around how to handle this situation.
Some people who feel very stressed emotionally find that this stress causes a decreased appetite. A significant decrease in calories can result in a decreased milk supply. Decreased fluid intake that results in a mother being in a dehydrated state can also lead to a lower milk supply.
Mothers who are stressed might also be delaying feedings which can disrupt the milk supply from the decreased demand. This can happen if breastfeeding is causing pain from nipple soreness. Another time this might occur is if a new mom is feeling overwhelmed with the amount of time that feedings take.
Feelings of stress and anxiety can be relieved or decreased through a variety of practices, including:
One study reported that breastfeeding moms who listened to music actually resulted in an increase in milk production and a higher fat content in the milk.
Breastfeeding produces hormones like oxytocin and prolactin. These hormones are associated with feelings of calm and well-being. Oxytocin has been called the love hormone and prolactin has been called the mothering hormone.
Prolactin can make a mother feel relaxed. Oxytocin is associated with:
There has also been research that suggests breastfeeding may result in a decrease in postpartum depression.
Be kind to yourself. Mothers have a lot of responsibility. They often leave self-care for last. But if you feel calm you will be better equipped to take care of your family.
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Agustina C.S, Hadi Hadi, Melyana Nurul Widyawati. Aromatherapy Massage as an Alternative in Reducing Cortisol Level and Enhancing Breastmilk Production on Primiparous Postpartum Women in Semarang. 4th Asian Academic Society International Conference (AASIC) 2016. Retrieved from http://aasic.org/proc/aasic/article/view/203
Hahn-Holbrook, J., Haselton, M.G., Dunkel Schetter, C. et al. Does breastfeeding offer protection against maternal depressive symptomatology?. Arch Womens Ment Health 16, 411–422 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00737-013-0348-9
Andrea Tran RN, BSN, MA, IBCLC is a freelance writer who has been helping moms and babies breastfeed for over twenty-five years. She is married and the mother of three adult children.
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