Breastfeeding, Exercise & Post-Partum Well Being by OptiMUM Health
Breastfeeding is such a tricky subject isn’t it – people vary between whispering conspiratorially about it and banging the proverbial campaign drum.
When I was pregnant with my first baby, some 12 years ago now, I had high hopes for breastfeeding. As someone who suffered from eczema from a very young age and developed asthma, I convinced myself that breastfeeding would protect my baby from the same fate.
No-one told me how hard it would be.
I just naively assumed I present my baby to my breast and feeding would happen. Reality was very, very different. Luckily my midwife was also a breastfeeding consultant and so I had wonderful support but even so, things didn’t work out.
It’s only several years later that I realise just how much pressure, guilt and feelings of inadequacy I heaped on myself through those torturous few weeks that I stubbornly persevered through.
Luckily my second son had no issues latching on and we enjoyed 4 months of blissful breastfeeding (at least in my memory’s eye!). So I can kind of see both sides of the breastfeeding debate but still I don’t see any messages for Mums saying it’s about what is best for both Mum and baby.
What’s more, with the omniprescence of social media these days, Mums are under even more pressure to do everything right and look great all at the same time.
Most do not realise how much healing is still going on in their body six months after childbirth, let alone 6 weeks! Similarly the demands of breastfeeding on our body are not widely talked about. So whilst some Mums worry about losing weight in case it affects their milk supply, others are struggling on with no energy in a desperate attempt to change their shape whilst still feeding their baby.
So here are my tips and facts to help any breastfeeding Mums appreciate the needs of their body.
Did you know, for example, that breastfeeding increases your body’s need for energy? Breastfeeding can require between 300-650kcal per day in terms of energy which you will take in from food and drink. Your body will prioritise producing breast milk over your personal needs and so undernourishing your body is likely to affect your health/energy, ahead of your milk supply.
The amount of additional calories required for breastfeeding will vary depending on the size and hunger of your baby, how often you are breastfeeding, whether they are exclusively breastfed, etc. The key is to listen to your body, particularly in terms of hunger and energy levels and gradually increase calories to accommodate your needs.
It’s essential to stay well hydrated whilst breastfeeding as this is a primary input that will affect your milk supply. It’s also worth noting that both caffeine and alcohol pass through to your milk supply so prioritising non-caffeinated, non-alcoholic drinks is the best approach for both you and your little one.
A great tip I received during my first attempt at breastfeeding was that grapes, eaten by the mother, seem to provoke more colic-like symptoms in breastfed babies. If you’re concerned about your baby’s colic, keeping a food and drink diary can help you identify any possible links between the food and drink you consume and your baby’s reactions.
Breastfeeding also prolongs the circulation of certain hormones in our body and this affects the elasticity of tissues and muscles. A hormone called prolactin remains high in women who continue to breastfeed regularly and this suppresses ovulation. As a result estrogen levels are decreased which can affect our body in a number of ways.
- your periods may be absent or irregular (which you may see as a benefit!)
- your vagina may feel dry, itchy and uncomfortable. Natural lubricants such as those produced by Yes Yes Yes (available on NHS prescription) can help with this but if not alleviated, talk to your doctor about a topical estrogen cream
- your libido may be missing in action – though if you’re getting very little sleep with your little one, energy may be lacking for this anyway
- tissues and muscles within your body may not be as elastic due to lower estrogen levels and slightly elevated relaxin levels so care should be taken in the choice of activity/exercise
This last point on returning to exercise actually applies to all new Mums, whether breastfeeding or not, and recognising that it takes at least a year for your body to recovery from pregnancy and childbirth (which makes sense as it took 9 months to grow your baby).
If you have a diastasis recti (abdominal separation) which is still present several weeks after birth, then ensuring you are supported when feeding your baby (with cushions or pillows), taking extra care with any lifting (and we know motherhood involves a lot of that) and taking steps to support your body’s recovery are well advised.
In addition, relating to exercise, I strongly recommend purchasing a suitable sports bra to support your breasts during exercise – plus a few breast pads to mop up any extra leaks that may happen during exercise from your breasts*. Specialist or small independent lingerie shops (such as Lincoln Bra Lady in Lincoln) offer free fitting services that will accommodate changes in your breasts due to breastfeeding.
If you find that your baby doesn’t want to breastfeed after your exercise bear in mind that your baby may be picking up on your elevated heart rate or a change in your body odour from exercise – neither will prevent breastfeeding as all should return to normal once you’ve showered and cooled down.
* if you’re leaking from elsewhere during movements or exercise, then please seek support as soon as possible. While 1 in 3 women will experience urinary incontinence, this is not normal and support from female health physiotherapists and Specialist Coaches such as myself is available to strengthen you and restore your Core and Floor.
Above all else remember that you are best place to know what your body needs, but it’s important to consider your needs too. Your body has done incredibly well, growing and birthing your baby and you are doing a great job, however hard some days feel. Be kind to yourself and take care of your body.
Lisa Gimenez-Codd is a Holistic Core Restore® Coach, Core and Floor specialist and MNU certified nutritionist, supporting women to & through menopause with mindset, nutrition and movement.