What Is Breastfeeding Let-Down And How Does It Work?

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Milk production in the body is a simply miraculous process. In general, it is started when a baby latches on to the mother’s breast, and ‘let-down’ occurs. Really, let-down is the action of milk flowing through the milk ducts into and through the nipple and into the baby’s mouth. Knowing how breast milk is made can really help us understand what happens.

Breastfeeding in BrusselsThe baby latching on causes a release of hormones which cause milk to flow. Sometimes let down can occur when you think of your baby, hear your baby (or another baby!) cry, or around feeding time and even during sexual stimulation and orgasm (this is because the same hormone – oxytocin – is at work in both situations.)

Although people don’t always know this, let-down may occur a number of times during a feeding, and may or may not be noticed.

For some women, let-down may cause a tingling or burning sensation in the breast or they may suddenly feel very thirsty. During feeding, milk may begin to drip from the unoccupied breast. Also, your baby will begin to actively suck and swallow, possibly with big gulping sounds if a lot of milk has come down.

A number of things affect let-down, and therefore breastfeeding. These can be physical things, like exhaustion, pain in the breast or uterus and breast engorgement or mastitis. It could also be heightened emotions such embarrassment, anger, fear or other emotions. Stress and negative remarks from those around you can also prevent let-down. It can also be from something practical, like the baby not being latched properly, or not actually nursing enough, which will then inadvertently be causing the milk to ‘dry up’.

A 1944 study of cattle showed that milk secretion is continuous, but let-down is different from milk secretion. Let-down squeezes milk in to the alveoli lumen, which makes it go down the ducts and to the nipple – milk isn’t made faster, it just flows faster.

Breastfeeding at one hour oldAfter six weeks milk is no longer stored up in the breast, but is made as required. This is where many people believe their milk has dried up, but it rarely has – it’s just working on a supply and demand system. This is why it’s so important to feed a baby whenever it is hungry, and to preferably never supplement with formula if you want to breastfeed – every bottle the baby takes is milk he or she is not causing you to create, which means your supply will go down, since it’s not needed.

Sometimes let-down can happen at really inconvenient times. Like when you’re in the company of another crying baby. Fortunately there are a couple of tricks that will hopefully salvage your wardrobe:

  • Cross your arms over your chest, or press the heel of your hand over the nipple area and apply pressure until the leaking stops.
  • Wear cotton breast pads (or disposables) in your bra to protect your clothing, especially during the first weeks.

If you can think of anything else regarding let-down, please leave a comment below – someone might really need to hear what you have to say!

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5 thoughts on “What Is Breastfeeding Let-Down And How Does It Work?

  1. The tricks you have mentioned were appreciated by my wife. Thanks a ton.

    [Reply]

  2. I never had any different feelings with let-down and if I didn’t know better, I think I’d have been worried that nothing was happening. Hmm. Well, thinking back, I probably was worried that nothing was happening and I’ve heard this from other women, too. So, I think it’s important to know that not everyone will get a tingling or other sensation to show that let-down has ocurred. But you can usually tell by hearing the milk going down or seeing the babies throat move when she’s swallowing.

    [Reply]

  3. If I could give a word of advice…be relaxed when you breastfeed. I couldn’t have a let down when I was frustrated…I still can’t. My let down reflex only works when I am thinking happy thoughts. If I was upset about something then I wasn’t getting any milk. It even was like that when I pumped.
    Apple’s last blog post ..A little birdie

    [Reply]

    Luschka Reply:

    @Apple, That’s really useful advice, and I totally agree! Thanks for sharing!

    [Reply]

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