Alyse looked embarrassed. "I just needed someone to talk to about this," Alyse whispered tentatively to me in the exam room one day. In my line of work I've learned to expect anything! Imagine my surprise when she asked, "My friends and family think I'm nuts 'cause I want to have natural childbirth and breastfeed my baby. Do you think that's a really silly idea?"
I confess to being shocked that our childbirthing culture had come this far backwards--that a pregnant woman might feel ashamed of her desire for a natural childbirth. With only a little encouragement from me Alyse was well on her way to discovering just how much the process of birth and early newborn care contribute to breastfeeding success (or failure).
During early pregnancy Alyse had already noticed that her breasts were getting larger and the areolae were darkening. "Makes an easy target for your baby's mouth," I explained. By the fourth month her breasts occasionally leaked a little of that amazingly rich, potent, and concentrated colostrum getting ready to nourish a baby, even if born early.
Alyse's determination to have the birth she wanted for her baby and herself really paid off.
When labor began, surging levels of oxytocin created strong and effective contractions. This high level of oxytocin caused a release of Alyse's endorphins, a natural pain killer, which helped her cope with childbirth. As her baby passed through the birth canal, catecholamines were released, giving Alyse just the boost of energy she needed right then! (Catecholamines later caused her baby to alert at birth, while a hit of mom's endorphines relaxed the newborn, making the baby both eager and ready to meet her mom!)
When the baby was delivered and placed on Alyse's chest, her baby instinctively crawled toward mom's darkened nipple. In this skin-to-skin position, the baby pulled her head back, opened her mouth wide, and began to nurse. Her suckling caused the release of prolactin, sometimes called the "love hormone," which helped Alyse melt at the sight and feel of her precious newborn. This hormone told Alyse's breasts to start making milk. Surging oxytocin told Alyse's breast ducts to eject the milk into her baby's mouth. The same hormone also told Alyse's placenta to separate from her womb and her womb to contract in order to prevent further bleeding.
Birth interventions have become so "routine" in "developed" countries that medical providers and patients can forget (if they ever knew) that pitocin does not elevate endorphins like oxytocin does, that epidurals reduce oxytocin levels, and that without high levels of these two hormones the energizing catecholamines do not increase. Taking babies immediately off the mother's chest (for bathing and testing) reduce levels of these milk-making hormones. And C-sections can wreak havoc on all these natural hormone interactions. Modern medical interventions are important to sometimes save lives, but used routinely they threaten breastfeeding success and may produce a less responsive mother and baby.
An article by Judith Lothian puts it well: "In a very real sense, the birth of a baby is also the birth of a mother - the birth of a breastfeeding baby and mother."**
Alyse couldn't have agreed more as she stroked the fuzzy head of her newborn, delighted that she chose to give herself, and her baby, the gift of a natural birth!
**[Lothian, J.(2005). The birth of a Breastfeeding Baby and Mother. Jo of Perinatal Education 14(1) p 43.]