Can you downward dog your way into a more supported and successful breastfeeding journey? A doula and yoga instructor explains why yes, you can.
Many of us see yoga as just another form of exercise, but it is genuinely so much more than that. On top of relieving postpartum aches and pains, yoga works with the mind-body connection, which can ease our stress, help us relax, and even enhance milk flow.
It can help with every area of your motherhood journey, but I believe breastfeeding, in particular, can benefit from a yoga practice.
Why yoga is beneficial for breastfeeding
- Increased oxytocin output
- Improved stress management
- A way to re-connect with your body
- Helps relax muscles and reduce pain
When your body may no longer feel like your own, yoga can give you the space to connect with yourself, tap into your maternal intuition, and ultimately be the best mother you can be.
And no, you don’t have to be a seasoned ‘yogi’ to get these benefits. Yoga can enhance your breastfeeding journey in many ways, but here are just a few.
Probably the most astonishing yoga-breastfeeding connection is through the role of oxytocin because breastfeeding requires it, and yoga creates it.
1. Increases oxytocin production
Let’s start with the basics: why is oxytocin crucial for breastfeeding?
Contrary to popular belief, your breasts are not two milk bags hanging there, always ready to be drained. In fact, before the onset of every feed, your milk production begins in your brain.
Oxytocin is the essential hormone responsible for the “let down” or “milk ejection reflex.” When you are ready to pump or feed, the nerves in your nipples signal to your brain, saying, “it’s time to make milk!”. Oxytocin is released from the brain and heads down to contract the myoepithelial cells and eject the milk.
We could not breastfeed or pump our breast milk without oxytocin.
However, this milk ejection reflex is conditioned by the mother’s sensations and feelings. This means that if she is emotionally upset, stressed, or even in pain- her milk flow may be inhibited.
Oxytocin is not only released when we breastfeed. Our body creates this hormone when we see our babies, smell them, hold them, or even hear them cry.
Have you ever been in public and had your milk leak through your shirt because you listened to another baby wail? That’s thanks to oxytocin.
One fantastic way to create oxytocin is through practicing yoga. Not only is it released while you are doing the poses, but a 2013 study also found that yoga can increase your body’s overall oxytocin production.
On top of optimizing your milk flow, oxytocin released from yoga can help ease the stress and emotions that postpartum and breastfeeding may bring. We need to feel safe, relaxed, and content for oxytocin to flow, but we often think the opposite, especially if breastfeeding is not going well.
Many new moms are discouraged to find that breastfeeding doesn’t come as naturally as expected. It’s normal to feel a wide range of emotions in those early weeks of breastfeeding, including feeling down, drained, and overwhelmed.
2. Decreases feelings of stress and anxiety
Yoga provides a non-judgemental space where you can pause, get centered, and practice treating yourself with loving kindness. Your brain also releases other “happy hormones” during this mindful movement.
These include dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, which all help ease stress and negative emotions. Combining these hormones will help you feel more relaxed and content during a breastfeeding session and turn frustrating feeds into peaceful, fulfilling ones.
Over time, yoga can change your brain for the better. It relaxes our minds and suppresses neural activity to decrease our fear, stress, anxiety, or nervousness. It also calms our frontal lobes and takes us out of the “fight or flight” mode many find ourselves in during challenging feeding sessions.
To give you an example of how powerful yoga can be, another 2013 study found that yoga helped manage depression with an effectiveness comparable to antidepressant medication.
Note: If you feel intense negative emotions around breastfeeding, you must reach out to your healthcare provider. You can develop a feeding support plan that is best for you.
3. A way to re-connect with your body
Breastfeeding can also feel like a time when your body is no longer “yours,” as you spend countless hours devoted to feeding. Yoga offers us the space to connect with ourselves again and become more in tune with what our inner voice is saying.
Through this mindful movement and meditation, we can learn how to listen to our bodies and trust ourselves. When we trust ourselves, we allow our maternal instincts to take over.
That disconnect you may feel from your pre-breastfeeding self will fade eventually, and a yoga practice might be the thing to help you embrace this new version of yourself.
A little self-compassion goes a long way as you navigate your breastfeeding journey- no matter how it goes.
Tip: Add opportunities for self-massage throughout your practice for some added self-love. Physical touch also produces oxytocin.
4. Helps relax muscles and reduce aches and pain
Practically, yoga also helps release any body aches from holding our babies.
When we learn to breastfeed, many often hunch over our babies, trying to see what’s happening and putting our bodies in awkward positions to get them to latch. As a result, it’s widespread to experience neck, shoulder, and back pain.
Note: Proper support when breastfeeding is key to preventing pain, but yoga can help relieve the pain you may be experiencing. If breastfeeding is awkward or uncomfortable, I encourage you to contact a Lactation Consultant for support.
So many gentle, beginner-friendly, upper body-focused yoga poses can help relieve sore muscles. You can even do them in bed, on a chair, or on the couch. Whatever you choose, taking care of any aches or pains you may be experiencing is essential.
If you are feeling pain in your body, that could inhibit your oxytocin flow, which could decrease your milk production and lead to you feeling discouraged or more stressed. Stress can then cause your muscles to tense, which may lead to more pain in your body, and it goes on and on. It’s all a cycle.
Tip: Practice yoga with your baby nearby. Seeing or smelling them will help the oxytocin flow. This also works with baby clothes or a blanket with its scent.
Final thoughts on breastfeeding and yoga
Breastfeeding can be a significant lifestyle shift, bringing numerous challenges and emotions. Taking care of yourself first is essential- body, mind, and soul.
Even if your breastfeeding journey is going “well” (i.e., your oxytocin is flowing, baby latches perfectly, etc.), you spend a lot of time feeding – much more than people realize. It’s easy to feel unproductive when you spend most of your time feeding.
Yoga teaches us to live mindfully, accepting each moment with gratitude. No matter where you are on your breastfeeding journey, yoga relaxes your mind and body, allows you to connect with yourself, and keeps that oxytocin flowing.