Every couple of months, there’s a new headline proclaiming the latest health benefits that nursing will bring you and your growing baby: decreased risks of cancer, reduced rates of obesity, and increased immunity for your baby! Less risk of diabetes for you! No one is happier about all this than I am. I’ve been a milk machine for five years, nursing my two children.
But for all the long-term benefits, sharing your body with another human can take a real toll. “We live in a culture that often falsely equates natural with easy,” explains Meredith Fein Lichtenberg, owner of A Mother Is Born Pregnancy and Parenting Services, in New York City. “But breastfeeding is work, and you have to care for your own body while doing it.” That means keeping your postpartum pantry stocked with healthy snacks, sipping plenty of water, resting whenever you can, and taking any nursing discomfort as a signal to get help. These coping tricks for the biggest problems will ensure you’re prepared when your hungry babe makes his entrance.
“I often see moms hunched over their newborn, wearing their shoulders like earrings,” says Leigh Anne O’Connor, a lactation consultant in New York City. “And they’re holding their babies with such force that their wrists are bent at a 90-degree angle.” When you sit like that eight to 12 times a day to nurse, you will start to feel as if your body’s been through a Navy SEALs obstacle course. And who can blame you?
Breast Defense: Never lean forward to nurse. Instead, have a chair or couch fully supporting your back. Then imagine that there’s a magnetic strip across your belly that pulls your baby to you, O’Connor says. Put a small pillow under the crook of your arm that’s nestling her head. When lying on your side (on a firm mattress without any loose blankets nearby), use a pillow under your head, between your legs, and behind your back. And in any nursing position, relax your grip. For new moms with a history of carpal tunnel, the tension can be enough to prompt a flare-up. Use your hands to loosely position your newborn, and be sure to pause for a few wrist circles before you bring her over to feed on the other side.
Finally, start now to work on toning your abdominal muscles, which will help stave off back pain. Not that we’re suggesting you get down and do crunches while you’re preggo! O’Connor’s favorite do-anywhere exercise: “While sitting at a red light or standing at a counter, imagine your belly button moving strongly and slowly toward your spine. Let it go, then repeat.”
When you’re nursing, calcium will be taken directly from your bones to ensure that your milk contains enough of the stuff. And without the extra protection of surging estrogen that safeguards women’s bones when they’re pregnant, moms on average lose between 5 and 10 percent of their bone mass within six months of starting to breastfeed, says Mara Horwitz, M.D., associate professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh’s division of endocrinology and metabolism. And research shows that a lack of calcium during this time of your life might also increase your risk for gum disease.
Breast Defense: The good news is that roughly six months after weaning, you’ll probably gain back whatever bone you lost while breastfeeding, Dr. Horwitz says. And you might actually be at lower risk for long-term problems. A 2012 Osteoporosis International study found that women who had breastfed for more than 33 months had stronger, larger bones than moms who had nursed for fewer than 12 months—as well as those who had never breastfed at all.
Still, it’s critical to take in at least 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily after your baby is born to keep your bones in good health. That’s roughly equal to a bowl of cereal and milk. Dark leafy greens are loaded with the mineral but in a less absorbable form. If you decide to take a supplement instead, calcium citrate is more easily digested (but also pricier) than calcium carbonate, which can cause constipation and nausea.
Take a multivitamin or calcium supplement that has 400 to 800 IUs of vitamin D to improve bone density. And amp up your body’s production of vitamin D by taking your baby for strolls. Get bonus points if you wear her in a carrier: “Weight-bearing exercise forces bones to strengthen,” says Shelly Holmström, M.D., associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of South Florida, in Tampa.
Trading nursing bras for regular ones feels fantastically liberating to some moms but triggers feelings of depression in others. For moms in the latter camp, “it can be hard to tease out what’s hormonal and what’s psychological,” says Alice Domar, Ph.D., executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health, in Boston. Depending on when and how abruptly you decide to wean your baby, prolactin and oxytocin, the two feel-good hormones that surge through your body when you nurse, might plummet quickly. And regardless of how long you nurse, deciding to stop can feel like the last snip of the umbilical cord.
Breast Defense: Babies who wean themselves usually won’t do so until after age 1, says O’Connor, so if you’re ending before that, it’s key to taper off slowly. Plan for the process to take a month or longer as you gradually substitute a bottle—and lots of cuddles—for the breast, one feeding at a time. For instance, if your baby is 6 months old and nursing five to seven times a day, replace an afternoon breastfeeding with a bottle for several days until he and your breasts adjust. Then replace another nursing session. A steep drop in prolactin levels can leave some women weepy; weaning slowly can prevent that. Plus, if your baby hasn’t started solids, your milk stores might still be very high to meet his nutrition demands, which means you’ll be at increased risk for engorgement and infection. If your breasts begin to feel swollen and hard, express just enough milk to soften them—any more than that will increase your supply of milk. Remember, too, that feeling a little sad post-wean is entirely normal. But if you continue to feel down for more than a few weeks, or if your emotions start to interfere with daily life, talk to your doctor. You want to enjoy your little one’s new independence along with him.