Mothers who get breastfeeding support that includes relaxation therapy may feel less stressed and have babies who eat and sleep more than women who don’t get this extra help, a small experiment suggests.
Many women struggle to breastfeed their babies even when they go to support groups or get 1-on-1 help from lactation specialists.
Stress is often part of the problem, said Nurul Husna Mold Shukri, lead author of the study and an infant nutrition specialist at Universiti Putra Malaysia in Selangor.
Pediatricians recommend exclusive breastfeeding until infants are at least 6 months old because it may bolster their immune systems and protect against obesity and diabetes later in life.
For the experiment, researchers offered 64 new mothers who were exclusively breastfeeding traditional help including educational pamphlets and information on support groups and lactation specialists.
In addition, 33 of the women received audio recordings that encouraged relaxation through deep breathing and offered positive messages about breastfeeding and mother-baby bonding, which they were instructed to play while they nursed.
Mothers who listened to relaxation therapy while breastfeeding reported less stress than women who didn’t get the audio recordings, researchers report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
After 2 weeks, mothers in the relaxation group had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their milk. At this point, babies in the relaxation group also slept an average of 82 minutes a day longer and had higher weight gains than infants in the control group.
After 3 months, babies in the relaxation group consumed an average of 227 grams (about 8 ounces) more breast milk each day than infants in the control group.
“The results suggest that a simple relaxation tool - in this case a meditation relaxation recording - was able to reduce maternal stress during breastfeeding, favorably affecting breast milk volume and/or composition and positively influencing infant sleeping behavior and growth,” Shukri said by email.
“Although we only tested 1 type of relaxation intervention, it seems likely that anything that makes a mother feel more relaxed might have similar effects.”
The relaxation tapes did not seem to have a long-term effect, the study team notes, because there was no statistically meaningful difference in milk cortisol levels or mothers’ reported anxiety in the later home visits.
Beyond its small size, one limitation of the study is that participants knew whether they were getting the relaxation recordings or had been assigned to a control group, and this may have influenced the outcomes.
It’s also possible that the small study of women in Malaysia may not reflect what would happen with mothers and babies in other countries. Breastfeeding is more widespread in Malaysia and maternity leave is longer than in the US, for example.
Still, the results offer fresh evidence of the importance of addressing maternal stress, said Dr. Valerie Flaherman, director of the medical center newborn nursery at the University of California, San Francisco.
“Mothers are often anxious and stressed in the first weeks after birth, and infant weight change has been shown to be associated with maternal anxiety,” Flaherman, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.
“These results show that reducing maternal anxiety with a simple audio recording has the potential to improve infant growth.”
There’s no downside to women trying relaxation techniques at home, said Dr. Lori Feldman-Winter, a professor of pediatrics at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University in Camden, New Jersey.
“Mothers should use methods that they know work for them to help relax, such as listening to music, reading, meditating or using mindfulness,” Feldman-Winter, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.
“These techniques may have multiple positive outcomes in terms of reducing stress, optimizing breastfeeding and newborn growth, and helping infant achieve more consolidated sleep, which may help mothers sleep as well.”