How stress affects the milk of a breastfeeding mother

I have been through enough during my second pregnancy to have transferred quite a lot of stress to Mikaal as a fetus. Once he was born I thought he would be saved from the negative effects of having an anxious mother, but I was so wrong.

Since the 2nd month of life, Mikaal became a nightmare baby. He would stay up all day all night. Cry inconsolably and generally be in a bad mood. I could not understand what I was doing wrong. I gave up caffeine and almost every vegetable. For a week I just lived on plain noodles and bread for the fear that anything I eat might be causing colics and hence the irritability. But nothing helped. In fact, it kept getting worse!

Incidentally (I say incidentally because it was not planned), I had a week of proper rest and lo and behold, Mikaal becomes an angel! Once my rest is over he returns the previous state. I could not for the life of me decipher what this child was trying to tell me through his cries. I pinned it down to his severe reflux, or lack of routine due to Manaal’s school timings and activities, or colic….basically everything under the sun!

Until one day I had a bad flare up of my eczema, which usually happens when my body is under severe stress, and a light bulb instantly lit up over my head! Does cortisol pass through breast milk to the baby??? Sure it DOES!!!

I cried so much that day (talk about increasing my stress levels even more!). I had been doing this to my baby and the poor thing could only cry in protest.

Now let me explain this to you.

What is cortisol?

It is the body’s main stress hormone. It is the hormone that causes the flight or fight response in the body. It’s like the body’s own alarm. Now imagine this alarm is on 24/7. That is what stress does. It increases cortisol levels considerably. Here’s how high cortisol affects the body:

  1. It causes mood swings
  2. It disturbs sleep-wake cycles
  3. increases blood pressure
  4. increases heart rate
  5. increases energy

I will not even get into what cortisol does to the body when that “alarm” button is constantly on! You get the idea.

So what did stress do in my case? Stress causes the production of cortisol, which in turn does the above things in order to prepare the body for “fight or flight”. When a breastfeeding mother is under constant stress, the cortisol hormone passes into the breast milk and to the infant through the milk. Possibly causing agitation, inconsolable crying and inability to sleep for the infant. Thank you very much!

Studies have shown that breastfed babies have up to 40% more cortisol than their formula-fed peers, which shows that the source of their cortisol is from breast milk. The cortisol in milk activates neurotransmitters to the brain which in turn affects areas that regulate emotions. It is still not clear if a stressed mother causes a stressed baby through her milk, but it is highly likely that there is a link.

The long-term effects of “secondhand” cortisol (cortisol received from the mother through breast milk), have not been studied yet. A research was done at Arizona State University that showed that when babies that had high cortisol levels in the blood, were placed in unfamiliar surroundings, they cried easily or became irritable.

Some studies have also shown that exposure to high levels of cortisol during infancy prepares children for the “real world” while there are others that show that this can affect the behavior of children and shape their personalities (that is aggression, anxiety, introvert etc)

The link between secondhand cortisol and infant behavior is a huge grey area as of now. But one thing is clear that it is not good, even if its effects are limited to the mother alone.

So what can one do??

There are a few things that can be done to reduce stress in the body and decrease the production of cortisol:

  1. Meditation
  2. Eating well
  3. Exercise
  4. Sleeping well (although this is going to be impossible for moms!)
  5. Relaxation techniques
  6. Avoiding caffeine

Stress and especially stress in mothers is a major subject and I will go into more detail of it at a later date. But for now, know this that this is not an anti-breastfeeding post. I am a breastfeeding advocate and never did I waver in my decision to breastfeed my son even after this revelation.

Now that I know that my stress affects him it helps me in relaxing. Remember that humans have been feeding their young ones from the beginning of time and I’m sure they too had pretty stressful circumstances. It’s not something unnatural.

[su_quote]So keep CALM and breastfeed on mama!![/su_quote]




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One Comment Add yours

  1. alizehmysoul says:

    Maa shaa allah I love reading breastfeeding articles and you have done a detailed study on the stress factors and breastfeeding!! Such an eye opener article for the new moms!!


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