Once a month, Gina Peterson, IBCLC, and Lexy Backstrom, BfNA (two Catholic Nursing Mothers' League leaders) work with me to support Catholic breastfeeding mothers in two online breastfeeding support groups. We launched these groups in March of 2021, and just celebrated our first anniversary of providing free online breastfeeding education and support. This month's topic is "Working with Your Baby's Natural Instincts to Breastfeed."
In preparing for our meeting, I took some time to refresh and expand my knowledge of the many instinctual reflexes newborns have at birth that help them to locate, attach, and breastfeed successfully -- when new mothers are given the freedom to hold their healthy, full-term babies skin-to-skin in laid-back, tummy to tummy positions.
My interest was piqued by a 2015 research study, "Intrapartum Synthetic Oxytocin Reduce (sic) the Expression of Primitive Reflexes Associated with Breastfeeding." In this study, the researchers observed that those babies exposed to synthetic oxytocin (i.e., "Pitocin") during birth exhibited fewer primitive neonatal reflexes that are favorable to getting started with breastfeeding as compared to the group of babies with no exposure to synthetic oxytocin.
The reflexes that appear to be most affected by exposure to Pitocin include all of the rhythmic reflexes that were studied (suck, jaw jerk, and swallowing). As a group, all the primitive neonatal reflexes that were studied were observed less in the group of newborns exposed to synthetic oxytocin as compared to the newborns who were not exposed.
The researchers suggested that it may be possible that synthetic oxytocin could cross through both the placenta (which protects the baby from some harmful substances) as well as the barrier that protects the fetus from substances that could damage his or her developing brain.
There were several limitations to the study. The group without synthetic oxytocin exposure included more experienced mothers, and the group with exposure had much higher epidural anesthesia rates. However the researchers did not observe any differences in the rates of newborns exhibiting primitive neonatal reflexes based on these two variables.
My intention in sharing this information is to encourage healthy mothers to make it a goal to have a natural, unmedicated birth whenever possible -- with a supportive birth team (including a birth doula if possible), in a birthplace that has a track record of good support for natural birth experiences.
For healthy moms and babies, a natural birth is the usually the best foundation for breastfeeding. Assuming mother and baby are healthy, mothers can help baby to get started breastfeeding by laying back, supporting her body in a semi-reclined ("laid-back") position and place baby skin-to-skin and tummy to tummy, allowing baby to self-attach.
Of course, even if Pitocin is necessary during a particular mother's birth, this does not mean she and her baby will be unable to breastfeed! My first birth was augmented with Pitocin and my fifth birth was induced with Pitocin, yet both of these babies successfully breastfed into early childhood. In any birth requiring the use of medications, (as well as all natural births!) make sure to get some of each of the four components that help you to succeed when you breastfeed:
As I know from my own experiences, breastfeeding is NOT always easy. And despite doing everything "right", it can be frustrating, exhausting, and sometimes just plain hard work that seems impossible. Your breastfeeding journey is unique to you and your baby; and as always, what works for both of you is what's best for you. Contact me if you need a listening ear or another perspective!
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