Breast-feeding not only creates a bond between you and your baby, it also provides your baby with nutrients that promote healthy growth.
Breast milk has antibodies that strengthen your baby’s immune system, protecting them from infections and diseases. Breast-feeding also has long-term benefits. For example, breast-fed babies are less likely to be obese or develop type 2 diabetes later in life.
But even if you’re convinced that breast milk is the best choice for your baby, you may have questions. Among your list of concerns, you may wonder whether your letdown reflex is normal.
What Is a Letdown Reflex?
Between sore nipples, latching issues, and problems with milk flow, breast-feeding can be tricky. The letdown reflex, however, can make breast-feeding easier for you and your baby.
“Letdown” is the release of milk from the breast. It’s a normal reflex that occurs when nerves in your breasts are stimulated, usually as a result of your baby sucking. This sets in motion a chain of events, and hormones are released into your bloodstream.
The hormone prolactin stimulates milk production, and the hormone oxytocin causes your breast to release or “let down” milk.
What Is a Normal Letdown Reflex?
Letdown, or the availability of milk, is different for every mother. Some women letdown within seconds of their baby beginning to suck, but it takes other women several minutes to letdown. Therefore, you shouldn’t compare your reflex with another mother’s reflex. Knowing what to expect during letdown can help you determine whether your reflex is normal.
Some breast-feeding mothers can feel their milk flow from their ducts to their nipples, but others do not. So you may notice different sensations in or around your breasts, such as:
- a tingling sensation (pins and needles feeling)
- a feeling of fullness
- milk leaking from your other breast
These sensations can develop immediately after giving birth, or they may not start until several weeks into breast-feeding. It varies from mother to mother.
Letdown can also trigger other natural responses. Although you may only feed your baby from one breast, letdown typically happens in both breasts simultaneously, so don’t be surprised if your other breast begins to leak. Also, don’t be alarmed if you feel your uterus contract when you letdown. This is also normal.
Your milk may letdown at a slow and steady pace. But sometimes, letdown is fast and forceful, and your baby could choke if they suck too much milk at once. The flow of milk gradually slows down and becomes more comfortable for your baby. If you don’t want to risk your baby choking, use your hand and squeeze out a little milk before each feeding. Fast flowing milk not only increases the likelihood of choking, but some people feel it can cause gas and colic.
Letdown is a normal reflex when your baby sucks on your breasts, but it can also take place before your baby latches on. You may notice your milk letdown when you hear your baby cry or if you’re overdue for a feeding. Additionally, touching your breasts or using a breast pump can prompt letdown. This is called “expressing.”
Improving Your Letdown Reflex
Letdown comes easily and naturally for some breast-feeding mothers, but others have trouble getting their milk to flow. If you have trouble with letdown — whether you're feeding or expressing — there are several things you can do to help the process:
- sip on a warm beverage
- listen to soothing, calm music
- take a warm shower before feeding
- hold your baby close to your body
- gently massage your breasts to stimulate milk flow
It’s important to remember that letdown is different for every woman. You may have a physical response and feel tingling or fullness around the breasts every time milk is ready to flow, or you may feel nothing.
If you have concerns about your letdown reflex, talk to your doctor. Also, let your doctor know if you’re having pain during letdown. A painful letdown reflex isn’t unusual and the pain typically goes away once you adjust to breast-feeding. If pain doesn’t improve, this can be a sign of a clogged milk duct, a breast infection, a strained muscle from birth, or your breasts may be producing too much milk.