The nature of breastfeeding contractions

Excerpted with permission from
Adventures in Tandem Nursing:
Breastfeeding During Pregnancy and Beyond

by Hilary Flower

La Leche League International, ©LLLI 2003
ISBN: 0912500972

The hormone oxytocin is often considered to be at the crux of any potential connection between breastfeeding and adverse pregnancy outcomes. When a child suckles, oxytocin is released. Oxytocin is the chemical messenger which causes breast tissue to contract, causing the “let-down” effect which results in milk flow. Through the release of oxytocin and prostaglandin, breastfeeding also stimulates the uterus to contract.

What effect might these breastfeeding-induced contractions have during pregnancy? We do know that mild contractions (known as Braxton-Hicks) are a normal part of pregnancy, and usually breastfeeding contractions are mild during pregnancy. One physician notes that clinical observation shows that breastfeeding contractions do not produce dilation of the cervix.

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Accordingly, in the Moscona survey of 57 mothers breastfeeding during pregnancy, only four women (seven percent) recalled contractions related to breastfeeding at all. The four women who did notice contractions described a broad range of strength from mild to intense, and none had an adverse effect on the outcome of pregnancy.

In keeping with Moscona’s findings, a few of my 200 contributors described strong “nursing contractions,” and none resulted in early labor. One mother wrote:

I felt contractions very strongly during my second pregnancy, some so strong that I was afraid of their intensity and ended the nursing session. Some of them were definitely more painful than Braxton-Hicks contractions. I always just called them “nursing contractions” to distinguish them from the so-called “painless” Braxton-Hicks. In every case where I was concerned about the number, duration, or intensity, I was reassured to find that the contractions stopped within about 10-15 minutes of when the nursing session ended. I continued to nurse my son Everest through pregnancy and gave birth to his brother Alden at 39 weeks. I had similar nursing-induced contractions during my next pregnancy, but I was reassured by my previous experiences and did not worry. I continued to nurse both Everest and Alden through that pregnancy, and their baby sister Ellery was born at 39 1/2 weeks.

— Amanda, Massachusetts

The overall lack of noticeable contractions during breastfeeding sessions in pregnancy (even among mothers who did feel Braxton-Hicks contractions) may have a simple explanation. Nipple stimulation during pregnancy causes less oxytocin to be released compared with the same amount of nipple stimulation in non-pregnant women. Some fears of breastfeeding during pregnancy may arise in part from an exaggerated idea of the amount of oxytocin released during breastfeeding in pregnant women.

… from Chapter 12: Health Concerns

Read other excerpts from this book

Excerpted with permission from
Adventures in Tandem Nursing:
Breastfeeding During Pregnancy and Beyond

by Hilary Flower

La Leche League International, ©LLLI 2003
ISBN: 0912500972

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