A look at which vaginal changes you can credit to breastfeeding
Breastfeeding can be complicated. It can run the gambit of being an effortless experience to the most painful, frustrating and stressful adjustment. The reality of breastfeeding, combined with the pressure to do so long term, can add stress to an already volatile time, which is why having the lo-down on how vaginas change is important. It’s one less thing that’ll catch you by surprise.
After giving birth a woman’s estrogen and progesterone levels plummet, similar to the way they shift during menopause. The drastic change in hormone levels can lead to atrophic vaginitis, which includes inflammation of the vagina, as well as soreness, itching and dryness. The condition can persist for as long as a woman breastfeeds because throughout this time estrogen levels will remain relatively low — high estrogen levels would inhibit milk production.
Rachel had atrophic vaginitis while breastfeeding her daughter, and sex was so painful that it soon became out of the question. “I’m not a huge sex person, so for me to complain that sex hurt and was hurting my relationship was a big deal. I started local hormone therapy for the dryness because I was so uncomfortable, but I wasn’t warned that this could happen. I was kind of dismissed, like, that’s the way it is.”
In an article for MedScape, midwives Amy Palmer and Frances Likis describe lactational atrophic vaginitis in women who are nursing as “probably under-recognized” by physicians. Palmer cites lack of awareness as a reason why physicians fail to warn women of lactational atrophic vaginitis.
In addition to having pain during sex, women who are nursing may lose their interest in sex, altogether. The lack of interest may be because breastfeeding suppresses hormones (prolactin and testosterone) which impact libido. If you are interested in sex while you’re breastfeeding and you’re also experiencing vaginal dryness, Dr. Candace Howe, an OB-GYN in California, recommends both low dose vaginal supplements (which won’t impact breastfeeding) and Aquaphor, an ointment for healing dry and cracked skin.
Lactational atrophic vaginitis is just one of many on a list of ways breastfeeding could be impacting your vagina.
Lochia, for instance, is a bloody discharge experienced right after you give birth and can continue while breastfeeding. The changes in discharge colors can also mean distinct things — brown or pink discharge indicates a woman’s period returning in a different fashion, while white discharge indicates ovulation and serves as a reminder that it is possible to get pregnant while breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding can also impact how your vagina smells. Lower estrogen levels at this time mean that your vaginal walls are thinner and less acidic, which allows for odor. Topical estrogen can help, but you should decide with your doctor if that’s the best route for you, since the topical estrogen could potentially make its way into your bloodstream and affect lactation.