Breastfeeding

Impact of breastfeeding upon the mother

The issues that the women raised with regard to the impact of breastfeeding upon them fell neatly into the categories of health, figure, exercise, diet, medications and social life.

Health
By far the most common topic related to their health discussed by the women we spoke to was the effect of breastfeeding on their fertility (for information see Resources). The overwhelming impression was of a great deal of variation in their understanding of what was happening and in the advice that they received. Many women were aware of the contraceptive effect of exclusive, unrestricted breastfeeding, both day and night, for comfort as well as nutrition. However, most women said that they would not rely upon the contraceptive effect of breastfeeding as they knew of women who had become pregnant while breastfeeding, some without even having a menstrual period.

Many women enjoyed a long time without periods (nine to twelve months and more) while others noticed that their periods returned about the time that they introduced solid foods to their baby. A few women said that their periods returned quite quickly (in four to six weeks) but one said that she did not think that she was fertile.

Many women used oral contraception while breastfeeding and most of these used the mini pill (progestogen or progestin only) because it enabled them to continue breastfeeding, although one woman found it unsatisfactory because it made her put on a lot of weight. Of those women who used the combined pill (progesterone plus oestrogen) most were aware that it affected the quantity and quality of their milk supply and was not compatible with breastfeeding.

Several women wanted to become pregnant and were concerned about not being able to become pregnant while they were breastfeeding and some were also concerned about the effect of breastfeeding upon a new pregnancy.

Other health issues that were raised included the effect of breastfeeding on calcium levels and osteoporosis. [Editor's note' Breastfeeding can actually decrease a woman's risk of developing osteoporosis.] A few women talked about wanting to breastfeed partly because of its protective effect against breast and ovarian cancer. A few women mentioned having difficulty thinking clearly while they were breastfeeding, the drain on their physical resources and tiredness but some countered this comment by saying that they were tired because they were a mother not because they were breastfeeding (see 'Breastfeeding an older baby'). One of the men who spoke to us said that it was important to look after the mother too, as she is often focused on the baby and forgets to take care of herself. One woman talked about pain caused by her own poor positioning for breastfeeding.

Figure, exercise and diet
Several women talked about their figure (including changes in weight and shape), exercising and dieting. For some, breastfeeding helped them to lose the weight that they had put on during pregnancy. For others it did not. Some said that they were not back to their former shape but that they were happy with their new figure. Some said that breastfeeding helped their stomach go down quickly after giving birth and some said that their breasts increased in size and stayed that way. Some women were keen to get back to moderate exercising, including walking, swimming, yoga and Pilates. Some said that it was hard to fit exercise into their day, especially when their baby was young. A few talked about getting their body back. The few who talked about dieting said that they waited until their baby had weaned.

Most women said that they noticed a big increase in their appetite while they were breastfeeding and some developed a sweet tooth. It was one time when they could eat anything without putting on extra weight. A mother of twins said that she was ravenous, ate big meals, snacked between meals and had an extra bowl of breakfast cereal before going to bed. Many said that they were thirsty and drank a lot more water. One woman said that she often felt hungry about ten minutes after a breastfeed. Another said that she noticed an increase in her milk supply if she ate, for example a pizza, before going to bed.

Most of the women said that they ensured that they had healthy food while pregnant and breastfeeding because they realised that what they ate went through to their baby. For some this meant no changes in their diet at all while for others it meant avoiding or reducing things like spicy foods, fast foods, snack bars, caffeine (in tea, coffee and coke), alcohol and anything that appeared to make their baby windy (onions and garlic) and increasing things like fish, chicken, cereals, fruit and vegetables. One woman from an Indian background talked about a strict diet during the early days of breastfeeding that included a special nut mixture to build up the milk supply (see 'Cultural aspects of breastfeeding'). One woman made 'fennel water' which she drank to prevent colic. Another woman removed all dairy products from her diet because she suspected that her son was dairy intolerant (see 'Dealing with difficult times')*1 while others avoided peanuts. While some women avoided alcoholic drinks altogether others said that they enjoyed one or two glasses as a way of relaxing. One woman, who wished to have a few glasses of wine at a party, talked about expressing breastmilk to feed to her baby later that night.

Medications

Most women did not take any medicines while pregnant or breastfeeding because they did not want their baby to “get anything”. Several said that they made a point of telling their health professionals (for example doctor and dentist) that they were breastfeeding. One woman asked her doctors to find another medicine when the one that they wanted her to take precluded breastfeeding (see 'When extra care is needed for mother or baby'). However, the medicines taken by those who did use them covered a broad range including painkillers (such as narcotic analgesics like morphine and pethidine following caesarean section and non-narcotic analgesics such as paracetamol for sore nipples and breasts); antibiotics (for infections such as mastitis and thrush); galactogogue's for increasing milk supply (such as metoclopramide and domperidone*2); prescription medicines (such as appropriate antihypertensive's, anticoagulant's, antidepressant's and methadone); oral contraceptives; multi-vitamin and omega oil preparations; homeopathic remedies and herbal supplements; and recreational drugs such alcohol, tobacco, cannabis and street drugs. A few women used medications to increase their milk supply (see 'Monitoring baby's growth' and 'When extra care is needed for mother and/or baby').

Information on medications and breastfeeding can be obtained from LactMed – an online Drugs and Lactation Database geared to health professioanls and lactating mothers. A resource that is part of the US National Library of Medicine (see Resources section).

Social Life
Many people said that their social life changed when they had a baby. Some took the baby with them wherever they went while others went out for short bursts between breastfeeds. Several said that they didn't want to go out anymore in the way that they had before but preferred to be there for their baby (see 'Changing family relationships with a breastfed baby'). Some said that their social life went on hold but that it wasn't for very long. Some said that they kept in touch with family and friends via email and text messages. Some said that they made new friends who had babies much the same age at a variety of community groups. One woman was keen to get her son, who was well over a year old, onto a bottle so that she could go out shopping or have a girls' night out without him.

*Footnote 1: It is recommended that exclusion of a whole food group from your diet be done in consultation with a dietician.

*Footnote 2: Domperidone is normally used in the treatment of Parkinson's Disease and has the side effect of increasing lactation in a breastfeeding woman. It should only be taken on the advice and under the supervision of a health professional.

Last reviewed September 2015
Last updated September 2015

 

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