A recent study found that mothers of babies in the NICU pumped more milk – and fattier milk – when listening to recorded visualizations and music, and looked at pictures of their babies.
Before we get into the implications of this, lets be clear about a few things: Mothers have nursed through wars, famines, and natural disasters throughout human history. You don’t have to be happy to make milk – or how could we have survived as a species?
It’s also true that, since lactation involves hormones and emotions can effect them, there is a (usually subtle) relationship between the milk production and your state of mind. As Lisa Marasco and Diana West write in The Nursing Mother’s Guide to Making More Milk, the nerve pathways for milk production run through the emotion-processing area of the brain. Just as you can start to make milk when you hear another baby cry, your production can be inhibited if you’re pumping, say, in a dirty airport bathroom.
(One instructor of a class I took explained: “The nipple is smooth muscle tissue. Its function is sensitive to emotional and environmental influences. Can anyone else think of another part of the human anatomy which is made up of smooth muscle? Something that might not ‘respond’ as well under novel circumstances?”)
But, the authors say, “remember that your body is wired with overlapping ‘fail-safes’ to help you succeed.” They point to the fact that milk production can be triggered both by emotions and by physical stimulation, and that oxytocin is in itself relaxing. That’s why mothers have breastfed successfully under stressful circumstances for millenia.
Back to the study: Researchers looked at the pumping output of mothers of 162 preterm infants who were randomly assigned to 1 of 4 groups. The control group received standard nursing care, while the mothers in the 3 experimental groups additionally listened to 1 of 3 recordings while pumping at home.
One group of mothers listened to a guided relaxation/visualization recording (the Breastfeeding Meditation CD I reviewed a while back). The second listened to the visualization plus music (lullabies for guitar). And the third group listed to the visualization and music, and watched a slide show of images of their infant on an iPod or similar device.
The mothers in the intervention groups all produced more milk. Mothers who listened to the visualization, music, and images of their baby, made the most, milk followed by mothers who heard the verbal protocol, and then the mothers who heard the visualization plus music (perhaps the music was too distracting, or too saccharine?). Fat content was higher in the first six days for mothers in all the intervention groups, particularly for the music/visualization/images group. Interestingly, the researchers found no difference in caloric content.
The findings point to the idea that the music and visualization interventions increased the mothers’ hormonal response to the pump (though this wasn’t measured). And the fattier content suggests that this resulted in more milk ejections.
A few things about this study make it a bit hard to apply to all mothers: First, the participants were mothers of preterm or critically ill babies in the NICU. They were separated from their babies and by definition under a lot of stress. Second, this study measured pumping output, not breastfeeding output. And finally, it’s possible that listening to the recordings forced some calm in the mothers’ environment which would have made a difference on its own (i.e. siblings not making a lot of noise while the moms were pumping).
So, what to draw from these results? First, for mothers of babies in the NICU, relaxing and focusing on babies is likely useful in producing more milk. I’d just hope that these findings don’t mean a de-emphasis of kangaroo care in favor of music interventions. If images of a baby can make moms produce more and fattier milk, imagine what actually holding a baby can do!
Second, while I don’t think that there’s any need to rush out and buy a breastfeeding CD, I do think it’s useful for all moms to know that lactation is an emotional as well as physical process. When pumping you have to convince your body that a plastic and metal machine is worth making milk for, when what your hormones are used to responding to is a warm, squishy baby. Taking a deep breath, looking at images of your baby (that’s why the pump companies include a place for a picture), and establishing a pumping ritual (same place, same time, same channel) can be helpful. For moms pumping at work, this is why having a designated space is important.
The truth about the impact of emotions on breastfeeding lies somewhere in between the traditional sayings (“Don’t upset a nursing mother or her milk will dry up!”) and the biological fail-safes built into the process. If you put a woman’s feet in ice water, or make her do challenging math problems and shock her when she gets an answer wrong, she’ll make less milk, as a classic 1947 study found. But you also don’t have to chant “Om” or live a totally stress-fee life to make milk either.
So let’s just take this study as a cue to take a nice deep breath, try to relax, and generally be kind to ourselves while breastfeeding. Our babies will appreciate it.
Did you find music, visualization, or images of your baby helpful in making milk?
*Hat tip to Breastfeeding Science for pointing out the study!