Having a baby cultivates a whirlwind of emotions that can be both exhilarating and terrifying for a new parent. Upon bringing our daughter home from the hospital, my boyfriend and I worried incessantly about her every move. Was she too warm or too cold to sleep peacefully? Were we checking her diaper often enough? Was she rolling onto her stomach in the middle of the night while we were asleep? Those issues were bad enough on their own, but add to that the complicated new process of breastfeeding, and we had a recipe for sleeplessness on our hands.
Thankfully, learning about the letdown reflex helped to alleviate many of my fears. The letdown reflex is simply the release of milk from the mother’s breast.1 This occurs when the nerves of the breasts are stimulated (typically, due to the infant’s sucking), thus signaling the release of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that prompts the muscles around the mother’s milk-producing cells to contract, squeezing milk into the ducts. The time it takes for the letdown reflex to occur varies from mother to mother but typically takes between a few seconds to a few minutes.
While some mothers may not notice any signals of the letdown reflex, many describe the feeling as a “tingly, pins-and-needles sensation”1 in their breasts. That feeling is normal and is a sign that the milk is now making its way through the ducts to the nipples. The letdown reflex can be felt immediately after birth, or for some, may not be felt until several weeks into breastfeeding. And because letdown occurs in both breasts at the same time, it is completely normal to have milk drip from either breast while the infant nurses, and not something you need worry about.
Additionally, there are several signs that reveal a healthy letdown reflex.2 In the first week after birth, the mother may feel uterine cramps as she feeds her baby. Additionally, her baby’s suck may change from short uneven sucks at the beginning of a feeding, to longer, rhythmic sucking about a minute into the nursing session. Her infant may also start swallowing quickly to manage the initial faster flow. Furthermore, the mother may also feel relaxed and drowsy while nursing, and she may also feel really thirsty due to a reflexive flow of fluid from the bloodstream as the milk ejection occurs.
Breastfeeding mothers can be taught to condition their letdown reflexes. The letdown reflex can be severely inhibited by stress, exhaustion, or even emotions such as embarrassment if the mother is in an uncomfortable environment.2 Eliminating or reducing these stressors can go a long way towards helping a new mom with conditioning and training her body to release milk. During the beginning stages of breastfeeding, mothers should develop a routine in order to signal their bodies that nursing is about to begin. For example, a mother may want to start a breastfeeding session by: drinking a glass of water, taking deep, slow breaths, and visualizing milk flowing out of her breasts. By following a routine consistently, the letdown reflex will naturally become stronger and even more reliable regardless of the circumstances or environment in which a mother attempts to nurse her child.
While breastfeeding definitely takes some getting used to, knowing ahead of time what you can expect may help lighten some of your fears. For more information on the letdown reflex and ways to create a relaxed nursing routine, take a look at the following sites: