As it turns out, plenty. The fact that breastfeeding is so good for mothers may be one of nature's best-kept secrets.
The Hormone of Love
Raging hormones are normal the first few weeks post-partum. During this time, many women experience the 'baby blues'. The blues can strike both nursing and bottle-feeding moms, but the nursing mom may have a powerful assist thanks to her high oxytocin levels. Oxytocin, a powerful hormone that is stimulated each time the baby breastfeeds, is a relaxing and tranquilizing substance that pulses through the mother's body during the milk release. Called 'the hormone of love' by researchers, it plays a role in bonding as a mother experiencing an oxytocin rush feels drowsy and deeply calm, promoting a peaceful state in which to fall in love with the baby.
Breastfeeding mothers continue to have an altered hormone state for as long as nursing continues. This is at least partially the result of suppressed menstruation. Unrestricted nursing can produce delays in the return of fertility for extended periods of time. Six months to a year is not unusual, and some nursing moms enjoy even longer breaks. During this time, iron stores are replenished and mothers are spared the mood swings of normal cycling. For women who experience PMS, this truly provides a vacation from added stress! (Note: Globally, breastfeeding is the most widely employed method for child-spacing. But no contraceptive method is fool-proof. Women often employ a back-up system of barrier contraception just to be sure.)
The Calorie Burner
After feeling like the Goodyear Blimp for months, most pregnant women look forward to having their bodies back. It doesn't happen immediately though, and that dough-boy look we all have the first six weeks postpartum may be part of the reason many women feel a bit depressed. A 1999 Time Magazine article about breastfeeding provided the following good news: "Nursing a baby may look pretty effortless, but it can burn up 500 calories a day - the equivalent of running about 5 miles." Scientific studies have demonstrated that between three months and nine months postpartum, nursing mothers who get even mild exercise lose more weight than their bottle-feeding sisters. Moderate exercise is not only OK for the nursing mom, but it seems to benefit the milk supply, too. Just be sure to empty the breasts before exercise and wear a supportive bra.
(Even More!) Beautiful Breasts
Speaking of body image, those leaking, swollen breasts of the first month DO settle down. In an established lactation, women are only really aware of fullness if they go too long between feeds. Over time, lactating breasts return to a fairly normal size, although they maintain a rounder, firmer shape that many women (and their partners) find attractive.