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How Breastfeeding Changes Your Brain

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Motherhoodchangesyouforevertheclichyourownmotherforewarnedyou.Andshewasright.Motherhood,

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and specifically breastfeeding the most central physiological act of mothering during infancy, changes you
because it literally alters your brain structurally, functionally, and in many ways, irreversibly. I am about to
explainhowtheactofnursingsetsapartmotherswhobreastfeedfromthosewhodontonaneurologicalscale.
Breastfeeding mothers and their babies are attuned to each other on a deep biological level. In fact, a
breastfeedingmotherandherbabyaresometimesreferredtoasadyadtwoindividualssocloselylinkedthey
areconsideredoneunit.Herbodynourisheshimhisfeedingdetermineshermilkproduction.Scientistscallthis

FOL L OW M E!

limbicregulation.Itsaremarkablenaturalphenomenonwherebythemotherisneurologicallyandchemicallyin
syncwithherbaby,andherbabytoher.MichaelMerzenich,theSanFranciscoUniversitybrainplasticityexpert,
has described breastfeeding as a kind of temporary breakdown of identity for both mother and child that
powerfullyaffectsboththeirbrains.Atthatpoint,thebabyandthemotherareunified(Merzenich1994).Glassy
eyed,who,me?

NewPathways
Whenyoubreastfeed,youarerelatingtothislittlepersoninawayyouhaveneverrelatedtoanyoneelseinyour
life. The process of a baby suckling at the breast actually forges new neurochemical pathways in the mothers
brain that create and reinforce maternal behaviour. This process is aided by chemical imprinting and huge

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increases in oxytocin. These changes result in a
motivated,

highly

attentive,

and

aggressively

protective brain that compels the breastfeeding


mother to alter her responses and priorities in life
(HahnHolbrook 2011). This hormonal cascade
makes mom want to respond to her baby and helps
her to interpret his needs effectively (Rapley and
Murkett2012).

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Members(396) More

When a mother nurses, not only do her blood


oxytocin levels increase, but her body makes more
receptors,permanentlyincreasingherfeelingsoflove
and her ability to feel loved. Mom's sensitivity to
oxytocinspowerisoneofthemostfundamentalways
she changes as a new mother. In humans, we have oxytocin receptors snuggled within our breast tissue. As
Swedens Karolinska Institute, Kerstin UvnasMobery, the global authority on oxytocin, found in a series of

Alreadyamember?Signin

experiments, breastfeeding women tend to be less reactive to stress hormones, less physically tense, less
suspicious,andlessbored.Theyarealsocalmerandmoresociablewhentestedforthesetraitsthanmothersof
comparableageswhoarenotbreastfeeding(UvnsMoberg&Petersson2005).
But the accolades don't stop there! In another study, this time conducted by Margaret Altemus, a psychology
professoratCornellUniversity,10lactatingand10nonlactatingwomenwerestressedbybeingforcedtoengage

TO P I C S

inoneofmyfavouritepasttimespoundingatreadmillfornoparticularreason.Theresearchteamfoundthe
lactating women released only HALF the amount of stress hormones, compared to those not nursing (Altemus

Allergies(19)

2010).Otherstudiesbackthisup.Itappearsthatoxytocinnotonlylowersbloodpressurebutalsoinhibitsthe

Announcements(7)

releaseofthestresshormoneglucocorticoid.Glucocorticoidsareonereasonwhyprolongedstresscandamagethe

AntiBreastfeedingPropaganda(22)

hippocampus. Meanwhile, prolactin, dubbed the parenting hormone, dampens fear and anxiety by inhibiting

BabyWearing(2)

the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for fear responses) (Kirsch2005). Zen! The two hormones are
elevated each time baby suckles at the breast reaching blood levels of eighttimes the norm (Ellison 2006). In
other words: breastfeeding moms antistress systems are frequently activated and they are buffered. Oxytocin is

Bloggingtips(2)
breastfeeding(102)
BreastfeedinginChildren'sBooks(6)
Breastfeedingpolitics(48)

MotherNaturesweaponagainststress,aninnatemechanismthatmammalmothersenjoysothatstressdoesnt

Calpol(2)

interfereandleastnottoomuchwithmentalfunction.AsStanfordbiologistRobertSapolsky,aninternational

Carseats(3)

expert in stress (would you want his job?) has remarked: Somehow mammals have worked this out, because

ChildHealth(5)

cognitionisagoodthingtohavewhenyouhavesmalldependents(Sapolsky2014).

Childbirth(3)
Children'sRights(11)

Breastfeedingmothersrespondtostresslesswiththebanalfightorflightmodel(commonlyseeninmen)and
morewithanalternativeonethathasbeennamedtendandbefriendwithfriendlinessratherthananger.This
femalemodelofthestressresponseisagain,thankstolactationstriggeringofoxytocin(Taylor2000McCarthy

ChildrensActivities(3)
Clothdiapering(1)
ControversialToys(6)
Cosleeping(15)

1995).Throughoutmostofhumanhistory,womenhavehadtowatchoutnotjustforthemselvesbutforthesprogs

Diagrams(8)

they most likely had in tow. Their bodies knew they had little people to care for purely because of the signals

Disability(4)

producedthroughsustainedlactation.Aconsequenceofthisbiologyisthateachgenderhasevolveddifferentlyin

Doulas(2)

thematterofpsychologicalresponsestostress.Formulafeedingmothersrespondtostresslikemen,inamore

Dummies(8)

fightorflightmanner,duetotheirlowexposuretooxytocinrelativetolactatingmothers.Thisinpartexplains
why breastfeeding mothers are significantly less likely to abuse their babies (Strathearn 2009 On this touchy
topic,seealso:'WhytheWayYouFeedYourBabyisMYBusiness').

EcoParenting(8)
Feminism(15)
FeministChildren'sBooks(3)
Feministobservations(15)
Formula(45)

Dr Kerstin UvnasMoberg, a world authority on oxytocin, has studied the changes between these two defence

Gender(15)

mechanisms, where she refers to the 'tend and befriend' approach as 'calm and connection'. In her book 'The

Guilt(22)

OxytocinFactor'shecompiledtwostrikinglists:

Healthvisitors(17)
LiberalChildren'sBooks(9)
LifeStages(3)
lol(11)
MechanicsofBreastfeeding(19)
Memes(5)
Men(19)
Milkdonation(5)
MommyWars(14)
MoneySavingTips(5)
MothersinLaw(9)
MultipleBirth(3)
NippleShields(4)
Parentinggadgets(10)
Play(10)
Poo.(3)
postnataldepression(9)
Postpartum(5)
Preemies(8)
Pregnancy(16)
Questionableparenting(7)
Reflux(3)
Relactation(4)
Relationships(2)
Safety(9)
SAHMVsEmployedMother(6)
Sex(6)

Forbreastfeedingmoms,it'sanupwardspiral.Thelongerandmoreoftentheirbabysuckles,themoreittriggers

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SIDS(6)

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TheAlphaParent:HowBreastfeedingChangesYourBrain
theprolactinoxytocinresponseinthemothersbrain,forgingmoreconnections.Prettysoon,themotherforges

SilentSunday(8)

enoughreceptorsthatshecanfeelherbreaststinglingandleakingatthesight,sound,ormerelypassingthought

Sleep(8)

ofnursingherbaby.AsoneWarwickUniversitystudydiscovered:
Breastfeeding causes a massive increase in communication between the neurons, coordinating a swarm of

Swaddling(1)
Tantrums(3)
TheWondersofAdvertising(13)
TimelineofaBreastfedBaby(3)

oxytocin factories producing intense bursts of the hormone. To illustrate, take a gander at the virtuous circle

TimelineofBabyandToddlerSleep(3)

depictedinthediagrambelow:

TimelineofBreastChangesinPregnancy(1)
TimelineofChallengingEarlyChildhoodBehaviour
(1)
TimelineofParentingProductsYouDONTNeed(1)
TimelineofPostpartumRecovery(2)
Timelines(8)
TongueTie(17)
TriumphantTuesdays(72)
TTC(11)
TV(5)
Weaning(12)
WeightCharts(14)
WetNursing(3)

BL OG A RCHI VE

2015(3)
2014(31)
December(2)
October(1)
September(2)
August(2)
July(4)
June(4)
ONEBOTTLEWONTHURTHowMothers
LoseTheirM...
FirstFacebook,NowAppleSexualizing
Breastfeed...
HowBreastfeedingChangesYourBrain
AllBreastsCanBreastfeed
May(4)
April(1)
March(1)
February(2)

Whenababygraspsitsmothersbreastwithtinyhandsandsucksonherareola,ittriggersexplosiveburstsof
oxytocinandprolactin,promptingburstsofdopamine,inthemothersbrain.Prolactinisdetectedbyasensitive
areaoneachmilkmakingcellandhastheeffectofprimingthem,orswitchingthemon.Breastmilkthenbegins
toflow.Thesereceptorsaremuch,MUCHstrongerinlactatingmammalsthannonlactatingmammals(Tzanou
etal2007). When these receptors are stimulated they make the mother want to protect her baby and hold him

January(8)
2013(97)
2012(58)
2011(39)

close.
These hormonal interactions create the notorious breastfeeding bond, switching off negative emotions and
switching on pleasure circuits that produce feelings of exhilaration and attachment (Domes et al 2007
Hurlemannetal2010).Thehormonalexchangeworksasfollows:Thenursingresponseoftheoxytoxincircuits
is reinforced by the feeling of pleasure created by bursts of dopamine the pleasure and reward chemical.
Dopamineisjackedupinthemothersbrainbyestrogenandoxytocin.Themothersbloodpressuredrops,she
feels peaceful and relaxed, and she basks in waves of oxytocininspired loving feelings for her baby. This
neurological mechanism explains one of the ways that breastfeeding reduces the risk of a mom developing
postpartumdepression(Figueiredoetal2013Figueiredoetalb2013HahnHolbrook et al 2013). Think of it
like walking through a forest the same way again and again, each time making a clearer trail this is whats
happeninginmomsbrain.Circuitsthatactivateasshebreastfeeds,becomestrongerandrespondmorereadily.

MorePowerfulThanCocaine
Letsexplorethisfeelgoodmechanisminevenmoredetail.Inonestudy,motherratsweregiventheopportunity
topressabarandgetasquirtofcocaineorpressabarandgetaratpuptosucktheirnipples.Whichdoyouthink
theypreferred?Thoseoxytocinsquirtsinthebrainoutscoredasnortofcocaineeverytime.
Togiveyouanotherexampleofoxytocin'spotency,maleprairievolesgivenashotofthestuffareconvertedfrom
rovingeyedbachelorsintonurturinghusbandsandfathers(Ellison2006).

EnhancedEmpathy
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In one Yale University study, a team of researchers
examined

new

mothers

half

who

were

breastfeeding, and half who were formula feeding.


Twotofourweeksaftergivingbirth,themothershad
their brains scanned using a swanky functional
magnetic resonance (fMRI) machine while they
listenedtorecordingsoftheirbabies'cries.Whytheir
cries? I can think of better stuff to put on my ipod.
Why not their cute baby gurgles? Or their babbles?
Well, the focus on crying was strategic: as I have
discussed elsewhere, responding promptly and
lovinglytoababyscryisanimportantpartofhelping
that baby develop trust, a feeling of safety, of
worthiness, and of mental wellbeing. The results of
this Yale experiment revealed that the brains of the
breastfeeding mothers showed a significantly
stronger response to the sound of their babies' cries
than did the brains of the formula feeding mothers. Greater activity was revealed in several brain regions,
includingthesuperiorfrontalgyrus,striatumandamygdala.Theresearchershypothesisedthathighactivityin
theseregionscontributestobreastfeedingmothersabilitytounderstandhowtheirbabiesarefeelingandrespond
in an appropriate way (Kim et al 2011). In other words: breastfeeding mothers are more attentive than their
formulafeedingpeers.Mammaries:1.ManMadePowder:0.
The amazing hormonal cascade induced by lactation doesnt end there. Lactation also facilitates learning and
memory specifically for social information. Breastfeeding mothers show improved memory for human faces, in
particularhappyfaces(Rimmeleetal2009Guastella2008).Theyalsoshowimprovedrecognitionforpositive
socialcues(Unkelbach2008Marsh2010)andimprovedrecognitionoffearinothers(Shofty2010).
To examine how important this process is, lets take a look at rats again.
Female rats inhibited from producing oxytocin after giving birth do not
exhibit typical maternal behaviour (VanLeengoed 1987). They show a
marked delay, and in some instances avoidance, of pup carrying, pup
manipulation,nestbuilding,autogrooming,andtimespentonthenestwith
thepups.Attheendof1hour,twooutofthesixmothershadnotyetpicked
up a single infant. Consider that human mothers who formula feed are
literally inhibiting their oxytocin production, lack of lactation is literally
stunting their maternal brain circuits. Contrast this with mothers who
breastfeed, they have been found to exhibit more behaviors that create a
close relationship to their baby, such as singing a special song to them,
bathing and feeding them in a special way, or thinking about them more
(Odent 2011). Quite simply, the more oxytocin you have, the more loving
andattentiveyouaretoyourbaby.Thereserveisequallytrue.
Thebreastfeedingmotherhasabrainthatisliterallymarinatinginoxytocin
Notbreastfeedingstunts
maternalbraincircuits

and dopamine making her feel loved, deeply bonded, and physically and
emotionally satisfied. Just check out the smorgasboard of other
psychological and physiological changes that oxytocin brings about in
breastfeedingmoms:

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EnhancedSmarts
In the same way that lactation gives breastfeeding mothers the edge over formula feeding mothers on the
attentivenessfront,italsomakesthemsmarterthantheirbottlewieldingpeers.BysmartImnottalkingabout
Hawkingesc quantum physics nope the smarts of a breastfeeding mother mean much more than that. Im
talkingaboutthekindsofsmartsthattranslateintoenhancedperception,efficiency,resiliency,motivationand
social skills. This is a topic I explore in depth in my book when I speak of breastfeeding mothers as positive
deviants.Breastfeedingisnaturesacademicplanformothers.HarvardpsychiatristDrJohnRateyexplains:
Whenamothergivesbirth,youwanthertobereallysmart,assmartasshecanbe.Youwanthertoknowabout
theterritoryaroundherandrememberthingsaboutherkids,andbeinaprimestatetofunction(Ratey2003).
WhenDrRateyexaminedthebrainsofmothersinlatepregnancy,he
foundthattheirnormalrateofcellreplacementhadsloweddownand
brainsizehadshrankaneventwhichmayexplaintheohsodopey
mommy brain fog of the third trimester. However, once mom has
given birth and breastfeeding begins, cell replacement resumes and
increases.Comparedtothosenotbreastfeeding,DrRateyfoundthat
lactating moms had more glial cells, which support the neurons by
importingenergyandexportingwasteproducts.
Let me give you an example of these cells in action: breastfeeding
mothers are more sensitive to the sounds of their own babies, and
moreskilledininterpretingwhattheymean.Abreastfeedingmoms
prickedupears(asdiscussedinthatcryingexperimentwespokeof
earlier)makehermoreperceptiveandawareinaword,smarter
aboutherchild.Thisperceptionalabilitybecomespartofhergeneral
feeling of extraordinary attachment to this new being. Strong
attachment itself can help make her smarter about the rest of the
world,inpartbykeepingherbrainelevated.
Thenthere'sthesensoryaspect:amothersskinasshenursesherbaby,ishermostdirectandlovingmeansof
communication,justashersucklingbabytalksbackwithlipsandhands,eggingheron,beforeheknowsasingle
word.KatherineEllison,authorofTheMommyBrainhasextensivelyresearchedthisarea.Shehasnotedthat:
Studiesonanimalsstronglysuggestthatbreastfeedingreplotsthemapofthebrain.Whenmybabysonlayon
mychest,hehaddirectimpactonmysensoryhormunculus.Withrepeatedinputfromsucklingandnestling,my
chest, which used to be a purely aesthetic part of my personal repertoire, had acquired a leading role in the
nurturing of another human being and also in the way I was imagining myself, interpreting the world, and
learningtobehave.
Adecadeago,twoneuroscientists,JudithSternatRutgersUniversityandMichaelMerzenichattheUniversityof
California, provided stunning evidence of this impact when they showed that in the cortex of a mother rat, the
areadevotedtothetrunk,orchest,hadactuallydoubledinsizewhilethatratwasbreastfeeding.BothSternand
Merzenichhavelittledoubtthatthesamekindofthinghappensinhumans:
Itisprobablethathumanlactationresultsinsubstantialrepresentationalremodelinginmostorallofmorethan
10differentsomatosensoryrepresentationalareas,aswellasinanumberofmotorand
premotorzones(SternandMerzenich1994).
Another boffin known for his scientific brilliance,
anatomist Vincenzo Malacarne, has noted that
breastfeeding is an especially powerful cognitive
experiencebecauseitinvolves,inhiswords,learning
underhighstakesconditions,whichisjustthesortof
learning that drives changes in the brain. In his
workhediscoveredhowlactationincreasessynapses
in the part of the brains cortex that deals with
attentionandcomplextasks.Thishowever,hedidnot
findsurprising:Inbreastfeeding,youarerelatingto
another person like you never related to anyone
before.Inasense,youareoneperson,anditspretty
Thebrainsofbreastfeedingmothersarebufferedagainststress.

educational to have another human being extending


into the makeup of your own self (Ellison 2006).
Indeed, breastfeeding forces moms to use certain

talentsupclose,constantlyandrepetitively.And,unlikethementalchallengesofstudyingorworkingatajob,
itsmuchhardertocheckoutforanylengthoftimewhenyoureonthespotfornourishing.Addtothisthefact
thatbreastfeedingreducesstressviaoxytocin,andopportunitiesforlearningareimprovedevenfurther.Haveyou
ever tried to learn something new when you're under stress? Breastfeeding strikes the perfect balance between
keepingmomalertandyetalsorelaxedanequalibriumwhichimprovesheroverallcomprehensionskills.

EnhancedEfficiency
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EnhancedEfficiency
Doesbreastfeedingmakeawomanamoreefficientmother?Formulaapologeticswouldunsurprisinglyargue
no.Howeversupposewedidanexperiment.Perhapsthisexperimentcouldinvolvedeprivingfamiliesoffoodand
thenwatchingtoseewhichmothersweremostefficientatobtainingit.Whowouldcomeuptrumps,breastfeeders
or formula feeders? This would, of course, be highly unethical, and so the hypothesis can never be tested on
humans,butothermammalsbringiton.AndthatsexactlywhatpsychologistDrCraigKinsleydidwithour
friends,therats.Helookedatthebehaviourofagematchedratmoms,comparingthosewhowerelactatingand
thosewhowerenot.Theratsweretemporarilydeprivedoffoodandthengivencrickets.Inordertofeed,therats
hadtocaptureandkillthecricketswhilstKinsleysteamobserved.
Intheanimalworld,aheightenedabilitytocapturepreymeansadecreasedamountoftimethemotherspends
awayfromvulnerableoffspringandthisdecreasedwindowofvulnerabilitymeansalowerinfantmortalityrate.
The results of Kinsleys study showed that lactation gives mothers the edge, with the nonlactating rats taking
around290secondstocatchthecrickets,whilstthelactatinggrouponlytookabout70seconds.Speakingofhis
findings,Kinsleycommented:Thelactatingbrainexpressesagreatdealofplasticityandcreativityinserviceto,
and in support of, reproduction. In other words, mothers are not born, they are made through breastfeeding
(KinsleyandLambert2006).Andwhatsmore,thebreastfeedingratsgainsinlearningandmemorywerelasting
uptotwentyfourmonths,afulleighteenmonthspasttheirlastlitter,andtheequivalentofabout80yearsofage
forahuman!80years,people!
Another research team, this time from Okayama University in
Japan, found more evidence to support the existence of
permanent change. They discovered something called long
lasting, longterm potentiation, known as LLTP, in the
hippocampipartofthebrainoflactatingmammals.LLTPisa
psychological marker of longterm memory foundation,
involvinganactualincreaseintheefficiencyofsynapsesi.e.
thestructurethatpermitsaneurontopassasignaltoanother
cell (Tomizawa et al 2003). Essentially: the changes to a
mothers brain do not subside once mom stops breastfeeding.
Scientists have good evidence to believe that permanent
changesoccur.Theybasethispartlyonresearchshowingthat
humans and other mammals respond more readily, and
emotionally, to their second baby than to their first. This is
much more than a matter of knowing what to expect: the
differences appear to become hardwired, even influencing
mothersmilkflow,whichisgenerallyfreersecondtimearound
(Ellison2006).
Inshort,breastfeedingmothersaremorepresent,focused,andorganizedchangeswhichlastfortheentiretyof
awomansmotheringANDgrandmotheringjourney.Justasnursingratmothersbuildanest,protecttheiryoung
from danger, and keep them clean, so nursing human mothers perform in comparable ways and keep on
performing.
Adoptivemothersandformulasfeederscanalsolapupthesebenefits.How?Well,it'snoteasy.Whenvirginrats
areinjectedwithbreastfeedinghormones(doingthistohumanswouldbedeemed'unethical'soherewehavethe
ratsagain),theygofromtheirusualbehaviourofrejectingratpups,tonurturingthem(Moberg2011).Adoptive
humanmotherscaninducelactationtoproducethesameeffect.Formulafeederscanrelactate.
Wow.You'vejustsatthroughaneurosciencelecture.That'salotoflearning,andbeingabadassbreastfeeder,you
probablysoakeditallup.Let'ssumupthispost:Breastfeedingissomuchmorethannutritionitchangesthe
architectureofthebrain.Thewayneuronsinawomansbrainarerestructuredinresponsetolactationenables
her to respond to her baby with a richer and more enhanced behavioural repertoire. In the blood, lactation
hormonesgovernmilkejection,whileinthebraintheyaffectbehaviour.Andthesechangesarethemostprofound
andpermanentofawoman'slife.MotherNatureknowsherstuff.
Now,ofcourse,sincebreastfeedingisthebiologicalnormforhumans,anaccurateconclusionfromthescienceis
not "Breastfeeding makes mothers more empathic, more intelligent and more efficient" but rather: "Formula
feedingmakesmotherslessempathic,lessintelligent,andlessefficient".Ohdear,sirensaregoingoffatFormula
FeederHQ...

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5CO MMENTS:
Jennifersaid...
Ithinkbreastfeedingisanamazingactivity.Inourhomewecallbreastmilkliquidgold.I'mcurrently
nursingmy8thbaby,andIcantestifytonursingdestressingme.SometimesIactuallywantmybabyto
nursesoIcansitdownandrelax.:)Iwouldn'ttradetheexperienceforanything,andI'msadthatmy
daysofbreastfeedingarecomingtoanend.Iwillbesharingthispostandhopeitconvincessomeoneto
givebreastfeedingatryoriftheyaretocontinueonalittlelonger.
1 7 J U N E20 1 4A T1 4:0 7
BlackCatsaid...
WhatanAMAZINGarticle!Asanexpectingmom,Iamsoexcitedaboutthebenefitsofbreastfeedingfor
momandbaby.Now,ifonlyAmericansocietywouldquitsexualizingit.
1 7 J U N E20 1 4A T1 5 :5 4
VanessaR.said...
Inursedmysonthrough13monthsandamsogladIdid!WhileIapplaudsuchawellwrittenarticle,it
doesmakemesadtoreadaboutalltheanimaltestingreferencedhere...
1 7 J U N E20 1 4A T20 :1 4

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TheAlphaParent:HowBreastfeedingChangesYourBrain
Clairesaid...
IhaveDMERsobreastfeedingmakesmefuckingmiserable.Everytimebabylatcheson,Ifeelhorrible.
Plus,it'sphysicallypainfulandmakesmynipplesallcrackedandbloody.Iexclusivelybreastfeed,co
sleep,don'tuseapacifierorintroducebottles,andfeedondemandbecauseit'sbestforbabybutthebaby
istheonegettingbenefits,notmeatall.Ithinkit'sgoodtoillustratethepositivesthat*some*women
experiencewhilebreastfeeding,butformeI'mcountingtheminutesuntilmybaby's6monthssoIcan
weanbecauseit'smakingmefuckingmiserable
27 J U N E20 1 4A T0 3:35
ChiBiusasaid...
Claire,ifyournipplesarecrackedandbloody,itcanbebecausethebabyisnotlatchedonproperly.If
that'sthecaseitcanbeimprovedbyrepositioningthebaby.Itwaspainfulformetooforweeksbeforethe
discomfortdisappeared.Goodluck.
25 SEP TEMBER20 1 4A T1 8 :5 7
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