The Role of Hormones in Lactation: What You Need to Know
Have you been hearing more and more lately about hormones and how they affect almost every function of your body? Have you wondered what role hormones play during lactation? Let’s dive in together and take a closer look at all things hormones and breastfeeding/bodyfeeding!
What are hormones?
Hormones are chemicals in your body that are responsible for many bodily functions including your metabolism, growth, development, sexual function, reproduction, mood, and yes, even lactation.
Which hormones are involved in lactation?
The two main hormones involved in lactation are prolactin and oxytocin. When your baby nurses, signals are sent from your breast to your brain which creates prolactin and oxytocin. Prolactin promotes milk production and oxytocin triggers the “let down” reflex or moves the milk. In the first few days of breastfeeding/body feeding, you may feel contractions while nursing. This is because oxytocin makes the uterus contract after delivery. These contractions can be mild, uncomfortable, or quite painful and they may remind you of early labor. They should subside after a few days.
How else can hormones affect my postpartum experience?
After delivering your baby and placenta, there are some big hormonal changes that occur. The hormones progesterone and estrogen drop dramatically and your lactation hormones are on the rise. This roller-coaster of hormones can cause a wide range of experiences for people including moodiness, weight gain or loss, excessive sweating or night sweats, and different bodily smells than you’re used to. You may experience the baby blues during this time. Note that the baby blues are different from postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety and should subside within the first 7-14 days. If the feelings linger beyond that period, reaching out to a mental health therapist is a good idea. The suppression of your period can give you menopause-like symptoms which may include fatigue, hot flashes or lowered sex drive. A nutritionist and/or an acupuncturist can help mitigate some of these issues. On the flip side, there are some hormonal effects to look forward to and enjoy, such as a feeling of closeness and bonding with your baby, empathy, trust and calmness. Once your baby starts trying solids, or somewhere around the 6-month mark, hormones begin to re-regulate themselves and may start to return to normal.
How do hormones change once we start to wean?
As you and your baby end your breastfeeding/body feeding journey, both the hormones associated with lactation (prolactin and oxytocin) levels will lower. Since these hormones are also linked to feelings of love, contentment, and calmness, you may notice a difference in your mood while weaning. This can last anywhere from a few days to much longer. If you are having a difficult time while weaning, it’s always a good idea to mention it to your midwife, OBGYN, or lactation consultant. It’s important to note that weaning from body feeding isn’t always linear which means the regulation of your hormones can mimic non-linear patterns.
How do I know if what I’m experiencing is normal?
Given the wide range of what is considered hormonally normal coupled with the changes of life with a new baby, it can sometimes feel hard to pinpoint what may be a problem and what isn’t. If you are experiencing any of the following to a degree that is painful or negatively impacting your life for prolonged periods of time, it is a good idea to reach out for additional support from your doctor, midwife, acupuncturist/herbalist, and/or endocrinologist: severe anxiety and depression, low libido, weight gain, cysts, fibroids, fatigue, sensitivity to cold, muscle aches, tenderness and stiffness, swelling in your joints, or an enlarged thyroid gland (located in your neck).
How can I balance my hormones safely while nursing?
The absolute best way to balance your hormones is through a nutrient-rich diet and a quality prenatal or postnatal vitamin. Focus on veggies and foods high in fiber, healthy fats, and protein. A nutritionist can help you if you’re struggling to do this on your own. If you experienced hormonal imbalances prior to pregnancy, chances are they may return for you and holistic or medical support may be needed. Follow up with your medical provider to restart a treatment plan. There is evidence to suggest that acupuncture treatments are also successful in balancing hormones.
What role would hormones play if a non-gestational parent wants to induce lactation?
Body feeding is a wonderful gift and many non-gestational parents (transwomen, adoptive parents, surrogacy parents, parents whose partner is carrying and birthing) are learning how to be a part of this experience. Because they haven’t given birth, they do not have the hormones of pregnancy to get their bodies started in producing milk. It is necessary to mimic the lactation hormones by stimulating and emptying the breasts and taking synthetic hormones or other milk-stimulating medications may be necessary. That stimulation can happen with your baby, an electric pump, or using manual methods. The amount of milk that is produced can vary greatly (from none at all to more than enough) and many parents often must use another source of milk or formula to supplement. If you are a non-gestational parent looking to induce your lactation, it is wise to get support from an experienced lactation consultant who can help guide you through the process and help you manage your expectations.
Pregnancy and childbirth are truly wondrous functions that are complex, intricate, and often go misunderstood. Taking a closer look at the inner workings of our bodies and the hormones that make lactation function is key to understanding ourselves, and this precious time, a little bit more. Understanding hormones allows us to take better control of our overall health.
Laura is a doula, having served clients in both New York and in mid-Michigan. She is a wife and the mother of two, a toddler, and a teen. When Laura is not supporting new families or her own, you can find her trying out new recipes in the kitchen. Laura is available on the boober platform for matches.