The moment you have skin-to-skin contact with your newborn, your body experiences a rush of oxytocin.1 Nicknamed ‘the love hormone’ or ‘the cuddle chemical’, it’s also released every time your baby sucks on your nipple during a feed.
Having your newborn latch on early and often helps your uterus (womb) contract and encourages the ‘third stage’ of childbirth, expelling the placenta. It can then protect you from losing too much blood.2
“When a mother breastfeeds, her uterus shrinks more rapidly than that of a mother who doesn’t,” explains Professor Peter Hartmann, a world-renowned expert on the science of breastfeeding, based at The University of Western Australia. “When a woman haemorrhaged in times gone by, doctors would put the baby on the breast as quickly as they could to stimulate this contraction.”
In the days after your baby is born, the oxytocin produced in your body during breastfeeding helps prevent further blood loss, so you’re less likely to suffer from iron deficiency anaemia.3
How breastfeeding benefits your health
Oxytocin also has an antidepressant effect. One study found that mothers who had higher levels of the hormone had fewer anxiety and depression symptoms.4 In fact, for as long as you continue to breastfeed, oxytocin will help you feel calm, reduce stress and blood pressure, and even raise your pain threshold.5
The longer you continue to breastfeed, the more health benefits you’ll enjoy. “There are so many advantages for mums,” says Professor Hartmann. “Breastfeeding lowers your lifelong risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.6,7 Every extra month that you breastfeed also reduces your risk of a number of cancers, including those of the breast, ovaries and uterus.”8,9
Breast milk: The ultimate convenience food
Although it can be exhausting in the early weeks, once you and your baby are practised at breastfeeding the convenience is a huge benefit. You can feed at any time with minimal hassle and effort. There’s no boiling, mixing, cooling and sanitising – simply unclip your bra and get going. You don’t have to remember to pack formula feeding-related paraphernalia when you’re out – a real bonus when you’re already laden down with nappies, spare clothes, wipes and other essentials.
Breastfeeding also suppresses ovulation, so your periods stop – which for many mums is a benefit in itself. This means that exclusive breastfeeding (giving your baby no other fluids or foods) is also a pretty good method of contraception – in fact it’s at least 98% effective,10 which is a similar success rate to the pill11 or condoms.12
“In the not-too-distant past, probably more pregnancies were prevented by breastfeeding than any other contraceptive. And that’s still the case in some developing countries,” says Professor Hartmann. But remember, some women do find their periods return while exclusively breastfeeding, so take extra precautions if you don’t want to get pregnant.
Get more sleep when you breastfeed
When your baby wakes for milk at night (as most under-ones do, whether they’re breastfed or bottle-fed),13 breastfeeding tends to be the quickest, easiest way of feeding him. You can even do it lying down! And the oxytocin and other hormones released during breastfeeding should help both of you doze off again quickly afterwards.14
If you breastfeed you may actually get more sleep than if you give your baby formula or practise mixed feeding.15 One study found the difference to be 40 to 45 minutes of extra shut-eye per night.16 Over time, that adds up to precious additional hours that could have a big impact on your wellbeing.
Breastfeeding helps you bond
The oxytocin surge you experience during every breastfeed also helps strengthen your bond with your baby. Scientists have linked raised oxytocin levels with what they describe as ‘enhanced mothering behaviour’. This means things like mums making eye contact for longer, having faster responses, and caressing their babies more17 – it’s not called the love hormone for nothing!
How breastfeeding can help you lose weight
If you’ve ever wondered how many calories are burned breastfeeding, the answer is up to 500 a day18 – about the same as an hour-long bike ride. And if you’re pumping breast milk the results should be similar. These extra calories burned with breastfeeding can help you shed any weight you’ve put on during pregnancy. Or alternatively, it might just let you get away with eating a few extra cakes and biscuits!
You may have to be a bit patient, too, as Professor Hartmann explains: “Mothers can lose body weight when they’re breastfeeding, but mostly that takes a while. You have to breastfeed past the six-month period to really get some benefit of weight loss.”
Why breastfeeding saves you money
The financial benefits of breastfeeding are worth considering too. If you’re exclusively breastfeeding, you don’t need to buy formula. Over a few months that can add up to a tidy sum – in the US, breastfeeding typically saves families USD 1,200 to USD 1,500 over the first year.19 Not to mention that you won’t have to panic if you can’t find your preferred formula brand in the shops.
And because breastfed infants tend to be ill less often,20 you’re likely to spend less time looking after a poorly baby. If you’ve gone back to work, this could mean you take fewer days off due to sickness and missed childcare.21
When do the health benefits of breastfeeding end?
They don’t! Believe it or not, you could still be reaping the rewards of breastfeeding now in your twilight years. “Breastfeeding improves bone mineralisation, so you’ll be less likely to suffer from osteoporosis and fractures in later life if you breastfeed,”22 explains Professor Hartmann.
Breastfeeding can even boost your brainpower: “Putting it simply, breastfeeding improves a mum’s IQ,”23 says Professor Hartmann. “Mothers undergo alterations in their brains that mean they can undertake some tasks more effectively.” So if you feel like a superwoman now you’re a mum, you are!
Now you know how much good it’s doing you, find out how beneficial breastfeeding is for your baby too.
For more information, read our free ebook The Amazing Science of Mother’s Milk now.