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Changes to your body are natural while going through pregnancy and these changes continue to happen after childbirth and while breastfeeding. The majority of these changes occur due to the fluctuating hormone levels needed to sustain pregnancy and then in order to begin producing healthy milk. Estrogen helps regulate your menstrual cycle and is the main hormone that is needed to support a healthy pregnancy. Naturally, those levels soar throughout the entire pregnancy. However within a day following delivery, your estrogen levels fall back to pre-pregnancy levels and this rapid drop is thought to be one of the causes of postpartum depression. If you choose to breastfeed after delivery, estrogen levels fall even further and will remain low until you stop breastfeeding. But why does this occur? Your body is making room for another hormone, prolactin, which helps support breastfeeding and maintains milk production. The other hormone released throughout breastfeeding is Oxytocin, which helps with release of the breast milk to the baby (Let-Down Reflex) and is responsible for the bonding feelings that mothers have with their baby during breastfeeding. Prolactin levels will remain high for women that continue to breastfeed regularly and oxytocin levels increase when your baby latches on to breastfeed.

So what are some of the common side effects from the fluctuating hormone?

Symptoms of low estrogen during breastfeeding are often compared to symptoms of low estrogen during menopause (click here to see our blog on Menopause). Some common effects are:

Irregular or Absent Periods:

Lactational Amenorrhea (LAM) is the time when a women doesn’t have her period because she is nursing. Being that estrogen helps maintain normal menstruation cycles, having irregular periods or none at all is to be expected while your estrogen levels remain low during this time. In fact some women use LAM as a form of birth control although there are important factors to keep in mind for this to be considered effective. Normal menstruation cycles will begin again as estrogen levels are returned to normal. For some women this might take until after they have completely weaned their baby from breastfeeding, while those who wean slowly can see estrogen levels return to normal even while still nursing.

Excess Hair Shedding:

High levels of estrogen during pregnancy can extend your hair’s growing phase. The sudden drop in estrogen following birth and the start of milk production can cause some women to shed their hair more. Don’t worry – you won’t lose ALL of your hair and you can expect the rate of hair growth and shedding to return to normal once your estrogen levels normalize.

Lower Sex Drive:

While it may not be directly linked to breastfeeding, the fluctuating hormones from giving birth and the production of milk is the likely culprit for women experiencing decreased libido. Prolactin can act as a libido inhibitor (click here) and estrogen can cause vaginal dryness and lead to uncomfortable intercourse if not addressed. Some nursing mothers will want to avoid having their breasts being touched during sex and may feel embarrassment if they leak milk. This coupled with having to take care of a newborn and the fatigue that can set in from the work and lack of sleep can leave sex as nearly an afterthought for breastfeeding mothers. Be open with your partner about the effects your fluctuating hormones are having on your mood. Also consider talking to your healthcare provider if you’re having trouble with intimacy for an extended time after giving birth and while nursing.

Vaginal Dryness:

Estrogen helps maintain healthy tissues of the vagina including the elasticity and thickness. It also regulates a thin clear layer of fluid along the walls of the vagina and when estrogen levels fall after delivery and stay low due to breastfeeding, the layer of fluid can dry up and the lining of the vagina can experience thinning (called vaginal atrophy). This can lead to uncomfortable sex and can cause small tears in the walls of the vagina during intercourse. First, know that these changes are normal and only temporary while your estrogen levels remain suppressed. Be sure to include adequate foreplay beforehand and the use of a pH balanced water-based lubricant like SYLK is highly recommended. While this can often be enough for a lot of women, if those don’t work, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider about alternatives. You may be prescribed a vaginal estrogen cream, although these can come with their own side effects. If you do decide to use one of these creams, it’s important to remain aware of your milk supply because estrogen can decrease milk production.

You are not alone!

It’s important to remember that you are not alone! Hormone changes that occur while pregnant, after giving birth and during breastfeeding are normal. Not only does breastfeeding provide babies with essential nutrients for growth and development, breastfeeding is also a special time between a mother and her baby to bond.  If you experience any abnormal and/or unbearable side effects while breastfeeding, be sure to visit your doctor!


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