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Magical milk maker? Secrets to easier breastfeeding

Have you ever wondered how your breasts make breastmilk and what you can do to ensure a robust milk supply throughout your breastfeeding journey? 

During pregnancy, your breasts may become sore, heavy, or tingly as early as 1 to 2 weeks after conception. Your nipples may also feel sensitive or even painful to touch. A lot of women notice their areolae darken and widen as well. 

Pregnancy affects levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone in your body. These hormones play an important role in readying your breasts for lactation and are responsible for many of the breast changes you may experience. 

Estrogen stimulates growth of the breast duct cells and generates the secretion of prolactin. Prolactin stimulates breast enlargement and milk production. Progesterone also supports the formation and growth of milk-producing cells within the glands of the breasts. 

At approximately 16 weeks gestation, your breasts begin to produce colostrum, which is a nutrient-dense, protein-rich, thick substance that is very protective to your baby’s digestive tract in the early days of life. After the birth of your baby, and once your placenta is delivered, there is a huge drop in your estrogen and progesterone levels. This signals your body to begin the process of making breastmilk. For the next few days, your baby will drink colostrum frequently throughout the day and night to help bring your milk in. Milk generally comes in on the third or fourth day postpartum. Your breasts will begin to fill and feel heavier and may even become engorged. Now is the critical time to continue breastfeeding often and ensure your breasts are comfortable and softened - every 2 to 3 hours around the clock, until your baby is gaining weight appropriately and has returned to their birth weight (which can sometimes take up to 2 weeks). 

Once your milk is in, production is driven by supply and demand. This means your baby’s suckling on your nipple is like placing an order for food. The suckling triggers your milk to let-down and flow. The more often your baby feeds and places an order for milk, the more milk will be produced. Softer breasts make more milk, which is why you want to breastfeed often to ensure your breasts continue to produce ample amounts of milk to keep up with your baby’s demand. Nighttime feeds are also important, because your prolactin hormone (responsible for making breastmilk) is highest between the hours of 11pm and 2am. 

You may feel that your angel baby from the daytime has suddenly turned into a little party animal at night and doesn’t seem to want to sleep! Your baby biologically knows this, and typically cluster feeds more at night and doesn’t always settle as well after nighttime feeds. 

In addition to breastfeeding approximately every 2 to 3 hours or on your baby’s demand in order to ensure your breasts are softened and comfortable, these are some other things you can do to ensure your milk supply remains ample: 

  • Hold your baby skin-to-skin as often as you can.
  • Offer both breasts at each feed but ensure good drainage of your first breast before offering the second breast.
  • Apply moist heat to your breasts before feeding to help your milk flow more easily. 
  • If your breasts are quite hard at the start of feeding, hand express for a few minutes to soften your areolae .
  • Gently massage and compress your breast for about 5 seconds when active drinking slows to encourage more milk removal.
  • Start with the breast your baby last nursed from or whichever breast feels heavier.
  • If your breasts remain heavy or uncomfortable after breastfeeding, don’t be afraid to hand express or pump to comfort.
  • Hand expressing for a few minutes on each breast after breastfeeding in the early days before your milk comes in can be helpful at ensuring an ample milk supply. 
  • Avoid bottles unless medically indicated in the early postpartum period until your milk supply is established. 
  • If you do need to bottle feed your baby, make sure you are using a true slow flow bottle system such as Dr Brown’s with a preemie nipple. 
  • Stay well hydrated - drink lots of water. 
  • Eat foods high in fiber like oatmeal, whole grains, and green leafy vegetables. 
  • Eat foods high in Omegas to help support the fat content of your breastmilk. 
  • If you were anemic during your pregnancy or had a postpartum hemorrhage, continue taking an iron supplement and eat iron-rich foods as your breastmilk is made from your blood. Some mothers with low iron find it challenging to build their milk supply. 
  • Rest during the day when you know the nights are often long and sleepless. 

Leanne is the owner of Nourish Lactation Consulting - a private breastfeeding support company servicing Calgary and surrounding communities in Alberta.

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