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From the moment my baby first crawled to my breast, I knew that nourishing her with my body would be one of the most primal, powerful experiences of my life.
I also knew breastfeeding could be difficult (thanks to a lot of honest sharing on Instagram, I was well aware of the many reasons why some mamas struggle to have a positive nursing experience), and I knew it might be fleeting (it's funny how people ask, "How long are you going to breastfeed?" as if that could ever be decided by just me—and not my body, or my baby, or my job, or my health, or the countless other factors that impact a mother's ability and desire to nurse).
But more than anything else, I knew I wanted to be present in my breastfeeding journey. I knew I wanted to appreciate every second, no matter how long (or briefly) it lasted, and no matter what kind of obstacles came our way.
In my first trimester of pregnancy, I experienced a panic attack that rocked me to my core and shifted my entire outlook on how I approach motherhood. That was the catalyst that made me realize I wanted to be fully, deeply immersed in my breastfeeding experience—the blissful moments, the overwhelming moments, all of it. I knew that I never wanted to find myself looking back, struggling to remember what it was like, disappointed that I had let this sacred season of breastfeeding pass by in a blur.
The day my baby was born, I started applying the general principles of mindfulness to our breastfeeding journey. But what began as a purely sentimental pursuit very quickly became a source of essential nourishment; not just for my daughter, but for me. It has helped me become a healthier, happier mom—and I am absolutely certain that we wouldn't still be nursing today, two years later (and counting), without it. Simply put, mindfulness made my breastfeeding experience.
When I felt chronically melancholy as I watched the early days with my daughter fly by far too quickly for my bursting heart to bear, mindful breastfeeding grounded me in the peace of the present. When I pushed through frustrating dips in my milk supply or symptoms of mastitis—the fever, the body soreness, the agonizing aches—mindful breastfeeding helped me relax and get my flow back. And when I'm irritated or anxious or overwhelmed, mindful breastfeeding offers an escape; a chance to release, recharge, reset and bond with my baby.
It's not always a spa-like scenario with light streaming in through the windows, of course. Mindfulness doesn't need to be practiced in calm moments—it's often most crucial amid chaos. Yes, sometimes it's a luxurious 30 minutes all cozied up in a quiet nursery at nighttime; but sometimes it's 5 minutes pulled over in a parking lot while my too-tired toddler flails around fussing, swatting at my face and twisting my nipples.
Those are the moments when it matters most; when I need to push past my irritation and center myself so I don't snap. Mindful breastfeeding helps me be a stronger, more focused, more relaxed mom—and best of all, it doesn't require me to sacrifice any of my precious spare time to practice it.
What are the benefits of mindful breastfeeding?
My lived experience tells me that mindful breastfeeding is a game-changer for mental and physical health—and the science supports it. The existing research already paints an impressive picture of mindful breastfeeding, while one group of researchers in a 2021 study states that "exploring the essence of mindfulness in breastfeeding and its health-promoting potential is highly warranted." Here's more about how it works:
- It makes breastfeeding mothers kinder, calmer and happier. A 2013 study showed that breastfeeding mothers who employed mindfulness techniques scored significantly higher than the control group for factors like maternal self-efficacy, acting with awareness, non-judging, non-reactivity, self-kindness and total self-compassion (among plenty of other positive traits). The study went on to state that the group of mindful moms "exhibited significantly less anxiety, stress and psychological distress." I'm going to take the leap here and say that mindfulness can help make you a happier, healthier parent. And you know who benefits from that? You, your children, your partner, your extended family and everyone else in your orbit.
- It increases oxytocin. You've likely heard of oxytocin by one of its many nicknames—the cuddle hormone, the love hormone, the bonding hormone. Breastfeeding is one of the mechanisms that releases oxytocin, which aids in recovery from childbirth, helps the uterus contract, promotes healing, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress and boosts bonding and connection between mother and baby. Another way to get a hit of this feel-good hormone? Yep, you guessed it: Mindfulness activates the part of the brain that releases oxytocin per this 2019 study. Pair breastfeeding with mindfulness for a double dose of the warm and fuzzy feelings that strengthen the bridge between your body and baby.
- It increases milk production. I first learned about this unexpected benefit while experiencing a stressful dip in my milk supply: Sitting up late one night trying (unsuccessfully) to pump any amount of significance, I decided to pass the time with a guided meditation on my Expectful app. Within a few minutes, my milk started to flow freely for the first time in days—and I've used meditation to help increase my pumping output ever since. But if you'd like more than just my own anecdotal evidence, please see this 2018 review, which shows "there is evidence from three studies suggesting that relaxation therapy may be effective in significantly increasing milk yield and from one study suggesting that it may have beneficial effects on milk fat levels." And it makes sense, right? Oxytocin triggers the let-down reflex, but stress inhibits oxytocin—which is why mindfulness can play such an important role in the lactation process.
- It reduces pain. Breastfeeding shouldn't be painful, generally speaking, and anyone experiencing prolonged discomfort should consult with a certified lactation consultant to treat the root cause. That said, it's common to endure the occasional bout of breastfeeding pain if you're dealing with a temporary issue like engorgement, plugged milk ducts, mastitis or thrush. While you work to treat the problem, practicing mindfulness—which is often used to treat patients with chronic pain because it significantly reduces pain intensity—can provide some relief while you continue to breastfeed through the discomfort (a practice that's generally recommended, as suddenly stopping can amplify many of these issues).
How do you practice mindful breastfeeding?
Ready to begin your own mindful breastfeeding practice? Once your little one is latched, follow these steps…
1. Breathe deep and let go.
Few things are so simple and yet so powerful as the act of breathing deeply: It immediately slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure and reduces cortisol (also known as the stress hormone). Get settled in a comfortable position and reset with a few deep, intentional breaths—always inhaling through your nose. After just two or three exhales, notice how the mind slows down and the body relaxes. Plus, the steady rhythm and soothing sound of your breathwork can help your child co-regulate their own breathing—so don't be surprised if you observe their tension melting away as they sync up with your rhythm.
2. Begin with a body scan.
When's the last time you tried to feel the very tip-top of your head—not by touching it, but by simply noticing it? In a mindful body scan, you'll realize how often we ignore our physical selves—but by tapping into the areas we don't often connect with, we can ground ourselves in the present moment. Begin at the top of your head and then slowly move downward, simply directing attention to various spots along the way. Notice how each area feels, then move on. When you arrive at your chest, it's nice to linger there for a little and focus on all the sweet sensations of nursing: the little hands grazing your collarbone or rubbing your belly; the sound and feel of milk flow (it can be helpful to visualize this, too, especially if you're working through a dip in milk supply or clogged duct).
3. Shift the focus to your baby.
Close your eyes. Feel the weight of your child in your arms. Pause to appreciate what a privilege it is to be their mama. Take another deep breath, open your eyes, and take in the beautiful sight, sounds and sensations of your baby: the dimple that's noticeable only while they're nursing, the little patch of peach fuzz on their shoulder, the smell of their skin. Sit still, make eye contact, observe, connect. Rub their back, brush their hair—and commit the moment to memory.
4. Don't stress it.
Mindful breastfeeding is meant to be exactly what you need, when you need it. If you sit down to nurse and really need to finish up a grocery order or respond to a few emails, then that's exactly how you should spend your time—without any guilt. Mindful breastfeeding will be there waiting, whenever you need it, as a way to disconnect from the distractions of your day and connect with your baby and body.
Ito E, Shima R, Yoshioka T. A novel role of oxytocin: Oxytocin-induced well-being in humans. Biophys Physicobiol. 2019;16: 132-139. doi: 10.2142/biophysico.16.0_132
Korukcu, O., Kabukcuoğlu, K., Aune, I. et al. Development and psychometric testing of the 'Mindful Breastfeeding Scale' (MINDF-BFS) among postpartum women in Turkey. Curr Psychol. 2021. doi: 10.1007/s12144-021-01858-6
Mohd Shukri NH, Wells JC, Fewtrell M. The effectiveness of interventions using relaxation therapy to improve breastfeeding outcomes: A systematic review. Maternal & child nutrition. 2018 Apr;14(2):e12563. doi: 10.1111%2Fmcn.12563
Perez-Blasco J, Viguer P, Rodrigo MF. Effects of a mindfulness-based intervention on psychological distress, well-being, and maternal self-efficacy in breast-feeding mothers: results of a pilot study. Arch Womens Ment Health. 2013;16(3): 227-236. doi: 10.1007/s00737-013-0337-z
Shires A, Sharpe L, Davies JN, Newton-John TRO. The efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions in acute pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Pain. 2020;161(8): 1698-1707. doi: 10.1097/j.pain.0000000000001877
Sobhy SI, Mohame NA. The effect of early initiation of breast feeding on the amount of vaginal blood loss during the fourth stage of labor. J Egypt Public Health Assoc. 2004;79(1-2):1-12.
Uvnas-Moberg K, Petersson M. Oxytocin, ein Vermittler von Antistress, Wohlbefinden, sozialer Interaktion, Wachstum und Heilung [Oxytocin, a mediator of anti-stress, well-being, social interaction, growth and healing]. Z Psychosom Med Psychother. 2005;51(1): 57-80. doi: 10.13109/zptm.2005.51.1.57
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