Your body on breastfeeding may not seem like your body at all. You may be rounder and curvier. Or you may be thinner than your pre-baby days. Your boobs probably leak at inopportune times—like when people are coming over—and it’s not uncommon to wake up in the middle of the night with your breasts full and aching. (Hooray, your baby slept longer, but now you’re in major pain.)
Sometimes you probably feel like your only hobby is breastfeeding your child (and talking about it), but when you stop and think about it, what you’re doing is so incredible. You’re helping a child grow and thrive. You’re sustaining a human life.
And while you may feel like a milk factory at times, breastfeeding can actually be pretty beneficial for you (in addition to all the benefits you already know you're giving to your baby). “Breastfeeding also has many health benefits for mom that we often don’t hear about. Moms who breastfeed have a lower incidence of breast cancer, heart disease, diabetes, ovarian cancer, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, obesity, and more,” says Zarya Rubin, M.D., founding director of Latched On MD. That—and the significant snuggly bonding time with baby—can help ease the blow when weird, funky, and what-the-heck things are going on with your breastfeeding body.
Another thing that might make the whole experience easier: understanding some of the more unpleasant and ouch-inducing side effects of breastfeeding. Here's what you need to know if you're living life with a baby attached to your nipple:
Your nipples will toughen up
The first time your baby latches, it’s surprising just how strong their little mouths are. “Nipples are full of nerve endings and have sensitive skin that has not often been exposed prior to breastfeeding, says Rubin. She says back in the day, expectant moms were advised to scrub their nips with a Brillo pad to prepare. (Um, ouch.) Luckily, your bod is gearing up for this moment on its own. “Pregnancy itself helps make the nipples more stretchy and stronger,” she says. After a week or two, any discomfort should start to go away. If it doesn't, there may be an issue with the latch or an infant tongue tie—see a lactation consultant for an evaluation.
Your breasts may tingle
Don’t be surprised if your breasts feel all pins-and-needles before the milk starts flowing. It’s called a “letdown” reflex, which is a “neurological phenomenon when the baby suckles at the breast,” says Rubin. She explains that a rise in the hormone oxytocin opens the milk ducts, starting the flow. The feeling may tingle, be enjoyable, or relax you, she says. Thing is, oxytocin can rise when you simply think about your little one or hear them cry, which means the floodgates can open at inopportune times. On the other hand, stress, anxiety, and caffeine can all interfere with this reflex, so it’s important to remember that you need to take care of yourself—especially when this whole mommyhood thing is so new.
Find out what it's like to breastfeed after breast surgery:​ ​
You may lose weight…or you may not
There are women who say they just couldn't keep weight on when breastfeeding—and then there are those who say they couldn't lose a pound until they stopped nursing. “Breastfeeding does burn about an additional 300 to 500 calories per day, and studies have shown that it helps lose the weight that came with pregnancy, but it’s not necessarily a magic fix for everyone,” says Rubin. There’s also #breastfeedinghunger, which leaves many moms even more ravenous than they were when pregnant. Rubin notes that there’s not data to show why some moms shed the weight quickly and others hold onto it until after weaning. No matter what camp you fall into, keep healthy snacks like nuts, fruit, and water nearby (like at your nursing station) to stay well-nourished and hydrated, she recommends.
(Speed up your progress towards your weight-loss goals with Women's Health's Look Better Naked DVD.)
Your breast milk changes
Considering some women breastfeed well into the second year and beyond, it shouldn’t be a surprise that breastmilk changes nutritional value depending on the age or health status of your baby. “The characteristics in breastmilk if you have a day-old newborn versus a one-month old infant or toddler are completely different,” says Rubin. For instance, as a baby gets older, certain immune factors in the milk will change (to combat all the crazy things they put in their mouths, natch). If your babe (or you) is sick, antibodies in the milk adjust to fight infection, she explains.
Your skin might crawl
For as many times as you do it during the day, there may come a time when you physically feel like you can’t sit there and breastfeed anymore. You’re agitated or angry. You want to run away. To your surprise, you may even feel suddenly disgusted by it. Research shows that breastfeeding triggers a range of intense emotions, including negative ones like breastfeeding aversion.
While many women tend to feel guilty when this happens, it's important to note it's totally normal and there’s nothing wrong with you. Some moms report that normal baby behaviors, like when an infant tweaks the nipple on the other side while feeding, often set off these feelings. (On the bright side, while that handsy infant may be irritating, moving the nipple actually helps to increase flow that naturally slows down over time, says Rubin.)
Other triggers for these negative feelings include not eating or sleeping well, in addition to pain during nursing. For those reasons, it’s important to take care of yourself and address any latch issues, so you can feel more like yourself, breastfeeding or not. Pro tip: Rubin suggests wearing a nursing necklace can also keep wandering hands occupied.