Breastfeeding During the Holidays: the Impact of Stress and How to Handle it
Back in the day, before I was an IBCLC, I spent hours on the phone as a La Leche League Leader, listening to and trying to help breastfeeding mothers. My sister leaders and I were very active with 2 group meetings per month, which were attended by 10-20 women per meeting. It was not unusual for me to talk on the phone with several mothers each day of the week. After a year or 2 of this work, I began to notice a trend. During major holidays, there was a huge increase in the number of calls about plugged ducts, mastitis and milk supply.
I discussed this with more experienced leaders in my town. “Yep,” they all agreed, “those breastfeeding problems are often correlated with major life events—especially holidays!” It was such a recognizable phenomenon, we began to joke about the types of calls we could expect and emotionally prepare for the flood of plugged ducts and mastitis calls.
Well, readers, the holiday season is upon us! For most of us, major holidays and other big life events can mean more and less. More errands, visitors, visiting, travel, sugar. Less nutrition, cuddle time with baby, exercise and, most importantly, less sleep. You already know your body doesn’t work as well during times of stress—you are more prone to illness and you just don’t feel right. It’s no different with breastfeeding. Your breasts are part of your body and they don’t function as well during times of stress.
Stress can impact milk production because it impacts the milk ejection reflex (MER), or let down. The MER is controlled by a primitive part of your brain called the pituitary. The pituitary releases that lovely hormone, oxytocin, that is responsible for your MER and feelings of love and well-being. Your amazing brain knows that it is completely inappropriate to fall in love or nurse your baby when you have to run from a charging elephant. So…when you are running from a charging elephant (or skipping your nap so you can run to the mall) the oxytocin is temporarily shut down. What happens if you try to nurse your baby or pump in this frantic state? Possibly very little. Over time, this lack of effective MER could inhibit release of milk, leading to plugged ducts or insufficient milk production.
So what can you do? Tell all your relatives to stay away? Cancel Christmas this year? Those aren’t bad ideas. But you don’t have to be that drastic.
First of all, acknowledge that you have a young baby who needs you more than he needs anyone else in the world. Try to remember that he will only be little for a very short time. Let your partner know that you can’t be the usual holiday super hero this year. Make sure you are both on the same page as you make plans. Talk about what you usually do and cut it in half. Then cut it in half again.
Schedule time each day that is designated nap/cuddle time for you and baby. The younger the baby, the more times you will schedule. Make sure any guests know that you will NOT be doing all the meal preparation. If family members really want traditional foods that are labor intensive, they are welcome to make them and bring them to you. Try not to have a houseful of guests; but if you do, retire to a quiet room EVERY time you pump or breastfeeding. Not because of shyness or modesty, but because you want your wonderful oxytocin to flow like a river.
Here are some suggestions from moms who have been there:
- Stay hydrated—a glass of water with every breastfeeding.
- If you must shop, shop online.
- Make a photo book online featuring your baby. Then you can have the same book shipped to all your family members. Don’t forget a copy for YOU.
- Forget about cleaning house. Let it go.
- If you must cook, do so ahead of time so you won’t feel stressed when company arrives.
Put you and your baby first this holiday season. Eat well. Get a massage. Take naps. Your family and friends will support you if you let them know what you need. They will be rewarded with a glowing, rested, happy mom and baby.
Happy Holidays and stay away from charging elephants!