There are two main hormones released during breastfeeding, and both have distinct benefits for mother and baby. Oxytocin and prolactin, both released by your pituitary gland, play equally important roles in establishing and maintaining an adequate milk supply for baby. They both also have a strong emotional effect on mother and baby. The release of prolactin is also well known to produce a sense of calmness. This is something new mothers navigating the wild and crazy ride that accompanies the biggest role changes in their lives can truly appreciate. I’ll talk more about prolactin in an upcoming post about managing low milk supply. But today, in honor of Valentine’s Day, I’d like to chat about oxytocin, the “love hormone”.
Physically, the release of oxytocin from your posterior pituitary gland causes uterine contractions and the all-important milk injection reflex (MER). This makes oxytocin release especially important after birth, when you want your uterus to contract to avoid postpartum bleeding and return your uterus to its pre-pregnancy size. The MER also your baby’s reward for suckling at the breast, as it results in gushes of breast milk for your little one to quench his hunger and thirst.
When baby suckles at breast, levels of this powerful hormone are elevated to eight times normal, with a cascade of physiological and emotional effects. The process of a baby suckling at the breast actually forges new neurochemical pathways in the mother’s brain that create and reinforce feelings of maternal love. This process is aided by chemical imprinting and huge increases in oxytocin. These changes result in a motivated, highly attentive, and aggressively protective brain that results in the breastfeeding mother altering her responses and priorities in life.
Oxytocin released in the brain under stress-free conditions also naturally promotes sleep. This link makes sense because the release of oxytocin into your bloodstream is known to inhibit the effects of cortisol, known as the stress hormone. Oxytocin release has a calming effect, leaving you feeling tranquil and loving. Mothers with new babies appreciate the removal of any barriers to sleep. Oxytocin receptors in your breast tissue actually increase with frequent nursing, which results in repeated surges of prolactin and oxytocin being released. When a mother nurses, not only do her blood oxytocin levels increase, but her body makes more receptors, permanently increasing her feelings of love – and her ability to feel loved. Mom’s sensitivity to oxytocin’s power has been called one of the most fundamental ways she changes as a new mother.
When moms experience breastfeeding challenges, my role as a health care provider and lactation consultant is to counter as much as possible your release of cortisol, while promoting frequent releases of oxytocin. This starts with excellent support during and after labor and delivery (Kudos to the awesome support Jill, Rachael and Shannon provide!). Having provided comprehensive breastfeeding support to moms and babies for the last 23 years, I’ve learned how important it is to explore what breastfeeding means to each mom I work with, and to tailor my recommendations to her needs in order to reduce her stress regarding breastfeeding and strengthen her relationship with her baby. Let the oxytocin and prolactin surge!
Theresa Hardy, MSN,CPNP,IBCLC