Updated: Mar 23, 2020
This article was originally titled ‘The Gift of Oxytocin’. However, a reference to the Garcia Marques’ modern classic novel ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ seemed more appropriate these days.
For weeks leading up to the inevitable self-isolating and social distancing, I posted frequently on social media about the importance of breastfeeding especially in these days of various illnesses, as a strong protection for a baby, and scientific articles that prove what we already know – that breastmilk for a newborn is of the utmost importance because of the antibodies that are formed in milk within 20 minutes of a mother being exposed to illness, plus the fact there is a lack of transmission via breastmilk of other respiratory viruses. Even if a sick mother did not wish to infect her child by having her baby close, the current guidance is that she is to wear a mask and continue to breastfeed her baby. That’s how important it is. On one post, a scientific article, my comment was directed at mothers, the ones who were considering weaning their child from the breast, to reconsider, and to extend their breastfeeding relationship further by a few months so as to give their children the best chance of not getting sick, not just to coronavirus, but all the other viruses, colds, and flus. Many responded very positively, and had decided to extend their breastfeeding journeys. Even if the illness does unfortunately strikes, baby usually presents milder symptoms and has a much speedier recovery. If we as humans made our babies sick with breastmilk, the human race would have died out long ago!
So what do I mean by ‘love in the time of coronavirus’? Well, I am referring to the rush of the ‘love’ hormone oxytocin which happens in small degrees each time we even think about our babies. Therefore, imagine the rush of oxytocin when feeding happens, which is actually the hormone that releases the milk. Yes, this rush occurs even when breastfeeding isn’t going to plan and mum feels pain or uncertainty. Breastfeeding is a natural medicine that combats depression, especially important to help combat postnatal depression, and in times like these, we need as many pick-me-ups we can get. Anecdotally, my daughter was just seven weeks old when my mother fell gravely ill. I rushed back to the US with a toddler and a newborn and sat bedside with my dying mother for ten days. This was a devastatingly sad time, and extremely stressful. Breastfeeding helped me get through that time because when I was feeling down and very low, I would feed my daughter, and experience a shift in my mood, a gentle lift. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but as my cortisol (fight or flight hormone) and adrenaline levels dropped, every couple of hours as I breastfed, I was released from the feeling of despair, and as my tears flowed, so did my milk. What a gift.
This is me spending time with dear friends in the days leading up to my mother's death in 2011. I am breastfeeding Hazel aged 7 weeks.
In my doula circles we joke about being oxytocin-addicted, because as a doula attends a birth, or supports a new mother in the days and weeks afterwards, the oxytocin flows with the love that surrounds this occupation of support. For me even just observing a mother feeding her baby, and seeing her relax into it especially after experiencing difficulties, I too notice the muscles in my body relax and know that what I’m feeling is ‘the gift’. Oxytocin flows when we hug and kiss, when we are intimate, and yes, the dads experience it too. Even a carer of a child who is not biologically related has increased levels of it. We can say our body ‘teaches’ us to love and to love deeply.
Dr Wendy Jones (the breastfeeding and medication pharmacist) was inspired to write a book entitled ‘The Importance of Dads and Grandmas to the Breastfeeding Mother’ after witnessing her son-in-law receive a terminal diagnosis just after the birth of his much-loved son. An illness that would bring him to his untimely death just a few short weeks afterwards. However, because of the love that flowed between her daughter, her daughter’s husband and their child, so did her milk. So much for the concept of milk that disappears with stress. Where there is love, there is milk too with rare exceptions.
How big formula will respond is anyone’s guess, but based on their practices, they will use this pandemic to cash in, not necessarily in promoting fear, but just planting little seeds of doubt, because that’s all that is needed to stop a mum from breastfeeding so that they can sell their product. Please, my fellow womankind, encourage one another with a word, a smile, or if necessary, the scientific evidence. It might make all the difference.