Remember those commercials from the 1990s that fried an egg and said, “This is your brain on drugs?” Well, there needs to be a new version of those commercials that say, “This is your brain on breastfeeding,” but instead of frying an egg there are fireworks or images of Supergirl or something. Because awesome things happen to your brain while you breastfeed, from hormonal shifts to literal new pathways being formed. Not only does breastfeeding facilitate bonding, but it has permanent changes on the makeup of your brain. Whoa.
We already knew that breast milk itself was amazing. (Did you know that it changes every single day, based on the dietary and antibody needs of your baby?) But breastfeeding itself is also pretty incredible. Immense changes occur in the brain of a person who is nursing — so many changes, in fact, that Katherine Ellison wrote an entire book on the neurology of breastfeeding, called The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter. I was pretty doubtful of this claim, since what I remember most about early motherhood was feeling totally scattered and not being able to remember anything. But the research is solid, bountiful, and proves breastfeeding works magic on your brain.
1. You Release Fewer Stress HormonesBreastfeeding can actually reduce your level of stress by inhibiting the release of stress hormones. A research team led by Margaret Altemus, a professor at Cornell University, had lactating and non-lactating women walk on a treadmill and measured their levels of stress hormones. The researchers found the lactating women released half the amount of stress hormones, compared to non-lactating women. Other studies back this up. They concluded that “stress-responsive neurohormonal systems are restrained in lactating women.” So basically, you’re chill af when you’re nursing.
2. You Experience Less Fear and Anxiety
In addition to feeling less stressed out, breastfeeding brains may also be less anxious. Oxytocin is a hormone released in the brains of breastfeeding humans. In a 2005 study in the Journal of Neuroscience, oxytocin was found to lessen fear and anxiety by reducing activation of the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for responses to fear. Who needs Xanax when you have nursing?
3. You Become Braver
Prolactin, nicknamed ‘the parenting hormone’ due to its role in lactation, may actually be the reason you’re willing to put your life on the line to protect your baby. Inga Neumann, a neurobiologist out of Germany who has participated in some of the only research of prolactin in humans, explains in The Mommy Brain that in the brain, prolactin makes animals braver, and even more likely to risk their lives. It turns out that there is a biological explanation for why nursing parents will do seemingly anything to protect their baby.
3. Your Pleasure Circuits Switch On
Hormonal interactions between oxytocin and dopamine work to turn off negative emotions and switch on pleasure circuits that produce feelings of exhilaration (dopamine) and attachment (oxytocin). I’m into that.
4. Increased EmpathyBreastfeeding makes you better at interpreting social cues, due in part to the oxytocin release. Oxytocin results in improved recall for positive social memories, happy faces in particular. Breastfeeding also apparently improves “mind-reading” in humans. If only nursing made you actually psychic. I’d probably never stop if that were the case.
5. Increased Responses To Your Baby’s CriesResearchers have found that breastfeeding mothers are more sensitive to the sound of their babies' cries than non-breastfeeding mothers. Maternal brain researcher Pilyoung Kim told The Atlantic, that "breastfeeding mothers show a greater level of [brain] responses to baby's cry compared with formula-feeding mothers in the first month postpartum."
6. The Entire Map of Your Brain Gets Replotted“Studies on animals strongly suggest that breastfeeding re-plots the map of the brain,” notes The Mommy Brain. And in 1994, two neuroscientists out of the University of California showed that in the cortex of a mother rat, the area devoted to the chest of the animal doubled in size while the rat was nursing. The researchers believe the same thing happens in humans.
7. Your Brain Changes ForeverOnce you stop breastfeeding, evidence seems to suggest that your brain is never the same as it was. Scientists believe that permanent changes occur, and have evidence to back up that hypothesis. This evidence is presented in depth in The Mommy Brain, which cites research showing that humans and other mammals respond more readily to their second baby than to their first. It indicates that we become “better” at being parents the more that we do it, not because practice makes perfect, but because our brains actually learn how to parent.