Breasts. Boobs. Jugs. Your chest. The ladies. Whatever you call them, you’ve lived with them since your teen years and it’s been pretty status quo up until now. Sure, they fluctuate around your monthly — getting slightly larger or more sensitive. But buckle up, because makin’ babies makes them a whole lot different.
Before baby arrives
Breast changes are one of the first signs of pregnancy. All kinds of hormones start tap dancing around, with estrogen and progesterone taking the lead. Achy, sensitive, tingling: check, check, check.
It’s because those hormones are causing your milk ducts to branch out and lobules — which house alveoli, your little milk production factories — to flourish. Prolactin, meanwhile, is like the maestro, going into overdrive to set the tempo and establish milk production (your prolactin levels will be up to 20 times higher than normal by your due date). By around six months, the breasts are fully capable of producing milk.
After baby is born
Contrary to what many of us assume, your milk doesn’t rush in the minute your baby is born. Rather, you’ll have a small amount of colostrum, which is what the term “liquid gold” refers to. It’s thick, yellow, and an incredible salve for your little one, bolstering their immune system for life. It’s not until day three (usually) that your breasts balloon with milk.
It is wild and can be overwhelming — especially for first time birth parents. You may think WTLF as your breasts become taut and your areola develops a darker outer ring (bulls-eye, baby!). Deep breaths. Your milk will settle down in another day or two, and by two weeks postpartum, if you choose to breastfeed, your production will normalize, and you’ll get into a groove.
You may notice tiny raised bumps cropping up on your areola. Or you could have had them all along and they’ve become more pronounced. Those are Montgomery tubercles, and they’re cool — they are there to lubricate the breast and keep germs away. Don’t fuss with ’em! Your veins may also be more visible, due to increased blood volume.
Breast size has nothing to do with your ability to make milk or breastfeed. I will say, however, that nipple shape — particularly flat, inverted, or very prominent — can impact latch.
If you have any concerns or questions breastfeeding, or if baby isn’t gaining weight within two weeks of their birth (for a full-term baby), reach out to a lactation counselor or an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. In my opinion, it is the best money you will ever spend.
I wish it was standard postpartum care to have this support — as it is in many other countries — because like I tell my clients: None of this is innate. It is all learned.
Nipples change, too
Nipples toughen up quickly when breastfeeding, but they still require all the TLC possible. Advice is as plentiful as postpartum stretch marks, so I’ll keep this simple:
- Give your breasts time to air-dry after breastfeeding. Moisture is the enemy!
- Do not use soap on your nipples in the shower. It can strip them of natural lubricating oils and dry them out too much.
- Avoid tight-fitting bras. They can create nipple soreness or chafing and possibly plugged ducts.
- When using breast shields (helpful for those with overactive letdown), make sure to change them regularly. It bears repeating: Moisture is the enemy!
If you experience any soreness from breastfeeding (or pumping), gently rub a dab of olive oil on each nipple. Allow to air-dry. You’ll be amazed at how helpful it can be — and you don’t run the risk of an allergic reaction, like some people can have with lanolin-based creams.
When to call your healthcare provider
The following could be signs of thrush:
- shooting pains in your breast
- itchy, flaky, blistered or cracked nipples
- persistent nipple pain
These could be signs of mastitis:
- flu-like symptoms
- nausea or vomiting
- a hard lump, red patches, or yellow discharge (after mature milk has set in)
The leap from sexual to functional
Beyond physical changes, there’s another one we need to address: Your breasts shifting from sexual to functional. It can be weird, frustrating, and/or intense for you and your partner. (Survivors of sexual trauma or abuse have unique needs, and I encourage you to seek professional support in advance.)
Like your pregnant belly, your breasts take on a life of their own when breastfeeding. You become focused on milk supply, latch, nipple care, and feeding schedules. It is decidedly unsexy and all-consuming, and 100 percent worthy of a heart-to-heart with your partner.
And don’t worry, you’ll reach a again sexual phase soon, but give yourself time.
Changes after breastfeeding ends
Two words: Sag-gy. Sorry, friend. It’s true. Technically, pregnancy is to blame, and breastfeeding compounds it. Growing larger, becoming dense with milk ducts — these changes do a number on the connective and fatty tissues, leaving them looser and thinner, which can affect breast shape and texture.
Exactly how it will change your breasts is based on your genetics, age, body composition, and previous pregnancies.
I know some postpartum parents whose breasts stayed larger or snapped back to pre-baby size, some who lost a cup size, and others who felt they were just swaying in the breeze, like two worn-out tennis balls dangling in a pair of socks.
Take heart. That’s why underwire bras were invented.
Mandy Major is a mama, journalist, certified postpartum doula PCD(DONA), and the founder of Motherbaby Network, an online community for fourth trimester support. Follow her @motherbabynetwork.