With more and more elite athletes choosing to return to high level competition post baby, there’s a big shift in understanding and planning the possibility of breastfeeding and pumping more successfully while training and competing at an elite level.
With approval from a doctor and some guidance from a dietician, athletes are improving their odds of successfully managing their training load and breastfeeding or pumping. It takes planning, patience, and flexibility but athletes are finding it way more do-able than previously thought.
While it might not work seamlessly for every athlete (or for new moms in general), it’s important to be not only realistic but in tune with your goals. For a lot of women, breastfeeding is a hot topic. With so much pressure from the breast is best movement in the past, some new moms have put so much unneeded pressure on their breastfeeding journey that it caused more stress and negative symptoms. Whatever you decide, keep your mental health in check as it will ultimately affect your physical health.
So, what does training and breastfeeding/pumping look like?
Well, it depends a lot on your sport and schedule. For instance, a long-distance runner’s journey might look much different than a soccer player, and those two journeys will look different than an elite wrestler. This is because different sports require different lengths of training or different levels of contact. Athletes in contact sports have brought up the issue that breast tenderness, especially in the beginning of breastfeeding/pumping, has been something to consider when returning to their sport. While for some it might not interfere, others might require increased protection or prefer to decrease their breastfeeding/pumping.
It might take a few weeks for your body to build up your base supply and get on a steadier schedule. It’s usually advised to breastfeed or pump before training as it can be more difficult to train with full or even engorged breasts (and the tenderness will feel terrible getting hit in the chest with a soccer ball!).
Trainings might also take a backseat when baby is fussy or sick. While athletes might make the best plans, there will be days when baby needs you, so training must be altered or delayed, and that is ok.
What about travel?
Many athletes must travel far for competitions or are on the road several days a week for games. This will also change the way in which you plan breastfeeding and pumping. Israeli National Team midfielder Diana Redman says that during the first few weeks postpartum she pumped extra between feedings and began freezing as much breast milk as possible, “I had a stash that was nearly 6 months. I didn’t know a lot about breastfeeding and training, but I decided to stock up just in case I was traveling for games or met some obstacles (which I inevitably did)”.
Understanding the changes with breastfeeding.
Athletes are already aware they need increased calorie intake with increased training, and the same goes for breastfeeding. Athletes who breastfeed or pump will need to adjust their diet accordingly as they may lose up to an additional 300-600 calories. Along with calories, athletes need to consider increasing water intake and make sure they are not dehydrated. Make sure to consult with your dietician or nutritionist to set appropriate plans.
The emotional toll of weaning.
The emotional bond a mother has with her child during breastfeeding is incredibly strong and can make the decision to focus on training that much harder. For many women, it’s the emotional and psychological aspect and not the return to playing that causes a riff in their performance. It’s a tough spot to be in. As athletes we are very in tune with our bodies and know when we need to make changes, sometimes those changes require a break or complete stopping breastfeeding. At the same time, athletes are still mothers and experience the same emotional uneasiness as others when making that decision.
For many women, breastfeeding is a mood booster and provides motivation for training. When women begin to stop breastfeeding, hormones within the body begin to change. While it is hard to know how one might respond, it’s good to understand the relationship your changing hormones and mental health might have and how it will affect your training and competition.
So, what might affect an athlete?
Well to start, oxytocin, a major hormone present during your breastfeeding journey, begins to drop during weaning. This can cause your body some increased anxiety, detachment, and stress, all which affect performance and training. Prolactin, a hormone that stimulates milk production, also begins to decrease and causes a seesaw affect with hormone Estrogen. These two hormones basically flip from high to low and low to high, and it is within this flip that mothers often feel sad.
Along with emotional and psychological affects, weaning can be a struggle physically. During weaning the breasts can become swollen, engorged, and painful. This can interfere with training if weaning is not done slowly. Engorged breasts may even run the risk of becoming mastitis, causing fever, or even infection.
When considering your breastfeeding journey alongside your athletic career, make sure to talk to your doctor and other medical professionals to help guide you to success. Many elite athletes have experienced this journey, both the ups and downs, so don’t ever feel alone.
To learn more about the psychological and physiological affects of weaning, click below.