Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Nursing During Pregnancy: Is It Safe to Breastfeed while Pregnant?

Let's talk about breastfeeding and pregnancy! There are several issues at work here, and I'll be talking about a few of them over the course of this week. 

The questions I'll be covering are:
Is It Safe to Breastfeed while Pregnant?

Today's question: Is It Safe to Breastfeed while Pregnant?

The short answer is: Yes! For most women, it is perfectly fine to continue to breastfeed throughout pregnancy.

There are generally three concerns raised about breastfeeding during pregnancy. These are:

1.  Breastfeeding releases oxytocin, which also causes uterine contractions.
2.  Making breastmilk requires quite a lot of the mother's resources.
3.  Pregnancy will cause your milk to dry up.

Let's take a look at each of these concerns.

1. Breastfeeding releases oxytocin, which also causes uterine contractions. 

This is true. Oxytocin is the main hormone that stimulates the uterus to contract during labor. Oxytocin is also released during orgasm and breastfeeding and is called the "love" hormone, because it encourages the bond between mother and baby or between partners.

Some women are concerned that the oxytocin released during breastfeeding may cause her to go into labor prematurely. Indeed, nipple stimulation (which is what causes the release of oxytocin) is one method of "natural" labor induction for women near or beyond their due dates. It is important to remember that your uterus is contracting occasionally throughout your pregnancy whether you are breastfeeding or not. These are not as strong or as regular as labor contractions, but they are normal and expected and are thought to "warm up" the uterus for labor. 

As mentioned, oxytocin is also released during orgasm, and sexual intercourse is considered safe for most women during pregnancy. Breastfeeding, as well, can continue through pregnancy.

Uterine contractions brought on by breastfeeding may become a concern if you have any complications, including a history of preterm labor. Please check with your care provider if you have reason to think breastfeeding during pregnancy may not be safe in your situation.

2. Making breastmilk requires a lot of the mother's resources.

This is also true. Making breastmilk requires nutrients and calories from the mother, just as pregnancy does. Some women may be concerned that they cannot take in enough to handle this doubled demand. 

However, unless you are already malnourished, there is no reason that you cannot eat and drink enough to provide for your nursling and your developing baby. Eat to your hunger and drink to your thirst. You will probably notice an increase in appetite and thirst, but that is reasonable given the amount of calories your pregnancy and breastfeeding combined will require. This will also depend greatly on the age of your nursling and how much he or she still nurses. An older toddler who is only nursing a couple of times a day will not require many additional calories from you. If your baby is still under a year old and mostly relies upon your milk for sustenance, you may find it more difficult to keep up. If he or she is old enough, you can try offering more solid foods if you need to cut back on nursing.

3. Pregnancy will cause your milk to dry up.

This may be true in some cases. For some women, the hormones of pregnancy will cause a supply drop in preparation for the switch back to colostrum when the new baby is born, while others continue to nurse regularly and comfortably all the way through their pregnancies. For some, supply problems begin almost immediately, while for others, the supply dip or drying up occurs during the second trimester. There's no way to know in advance whether you are one of these women, and an ample supply pre-pregnancy is not a predictor. I had plenty of milk before I became pregnant and did not expect pregnancy to affect my supply. Instead, I found my supply quickly dwindled to nothing despite my toddler's continuing to nurse. I could tell that he was eating considerably more solid foods and receiving very little breastmilk. I had trouble expressing even a couple of drops of milk by the middle of the second trimester. Some women are able to combat this supply dip by using foods and herbs that can increase milk supply, but this will not work for everyone.

You need to be aware of this possibility, because if you do become pregnant while your baby is still under a year old, it may be difficult to continue to meet his needs if your milk does dry up. You should take this into consideration if you're considering allowing breastfeeding to be your only form of birth control. (See the previous post for more on breastfeeding as contraception.)

Remember that this possibility doesn't mean you shouldn't at least try to continue breastfeeding during your pregnancy, if that is your desire.

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