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Reviewing Mom's Health Benefits of Breastfeeding

Although many breastfeeding advocates focus on the positive effects for the baby, moms also reap physical benefits from breastfeeding. For starters, breastfeeding is the best way to get your body back into its pre-pregnancy state. (Be honest, you can't wait to fit back into your favorite pair of jeans, right?)

Benefits from breastfeeding come in many packages. You'll find short-term benefits (like uterine contractions so you don't bleed heavily immediately after delivery) and long-term benefits (like not developing osteoporosis when you're old and gray).

The incredible shrinking uterus

Picture yourself after delivering your baby. You put her to your breast, your lower abdomen goes into a giant spasm, and blood starts flowing like Niagara Falls. You look down at the clot you just passed, wonder if you've given birth to a second baby, and remember vaguely reading about afterpains.

Afterpains are contractions of the uterus caused by the release of the hormone oxytocin. When you breastfeed, oxytocin is released into your body, which triggers these uterine contractions. Afterpains are necessary to shrink the uterus down to its previous size and to expel blood and clots, but they can be very uncomfortable; they also tend to be stronger after each delivery.

All women have afterpains, whether they breastfeed or not, but breastfeeding mothers usually experience stronger afterpains. Now, you're asking yourself: Why is stronger pain a good thing? Because the more acute the afterpains, the faster your uterus returns to normal.

Weight loss after delivery

Your first glance in the mirror after delivery may have you planning a carrot and prune juice diet to rid yourself of the excess weight. Breastfeeding can help you shed your excess weight while eating your regular diet. Producing milk uses 200 to 500 calories a day, on average. That may not sound like much, but it equals the calories burned running a couple miles a day or doing 30 laps in the pool.

However, be realistic: Don't expect to be back at pre-pregnancy weight within a week after delivery. When you're pregnant, you may brainwash yourself into thinking that this weight will come off as easily as it went on, as if your 7-pound baby is going to account for a 30-pound weight loss. For most women, this doesn't happen.

If you breastfeed and you maintain your pregnant caloric intake after delivery, you'll lose around a pound a week. But remember, just as pregnancy requires a certain amount of calories to create a healthy baby, you need a specific amount of calories to produce milk.

You need to consume a minimum of 1,800 calories per day in order to produce milk for your baby. Cutting your calories lower than that while nursing won't be good for you or your milk supply. Let your increased activity level and the milk-making calories help get the weight off. And don't worry about whether you'll have an "increased activity level" after delivery — when the baby comes, you won't remember what a sedentary day is.

Don't cut down on your calories until the baby is at least 6 weeks old to make sure that you get your milk supply established and help your body heal after delivery.

Reduced cancer risks

Decreasing your risk of breast cancer is one of the more important benefits of breastfeeding. Studies show that breastfeeding decreases your chances of developing premenopausal breast cancer by nearly 25 percent. This benefit is strongly connected with the length of your breastfeeding experience. Two weeks is good, four months is better, and more than six months is best as far as protection against breast cancer goes.

Of course, nothing can completely eliminate this risk; family history is always an important factor in developing breast cancer.

Some studies have also shown a decrease in ovarian and uterine cancers in women who breastfed. One thought is that when a woman is nursing she is not getting her period as often, because nursing often delays the return of menses after delivery. Less menstrual cycles overall means less estrogen exposure, which may lead to reduced cancer risk.

Increased bone density

Chances are that you haven't yet thought about osteoporosis, the thinning of bones that often happens to women after menopause. But now is the time to think of it, because what you do during your younger years determines your bone density in the future.

While you're nursing, your bone density actually tends to decrease. However, this effect is temporary. Research has shown that after weaning, many women's bone density actually increases. This means that breastfeeding may help reduce your future risk of osteoporosis.

A reason to rest

Maybe you know this new mother: She's got a coffee cup in one hand and the phone in the other as she races from room to room. Her baby is propped up in an infant seat, a bottle wedged up to her mouth with a blanket. As mom runs past, she straightens up either the baby or the bottle, as both have a tendency to fall sideways.

One of the better things about breastfeeding is that it can't be done long distance. You need to sit down and take a breather while you nurse, at least at first. Later on, perhaps you'll learn to breastfeed while carrying the baby in a sling through the grocery store, but that's your choice.

Breastfeeding enforces rest. And goodness knows, you'll need it.

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