I found knowing how my breasts produced milk for my daughter made a big difference to how I managed her fussy feeding for the small amount of time i was able to feed her myself.
As pregnancy progresses. The breasts get themselves ready for feeding. The skin around the nipples (areolas) may appear darker, and have tiny bumps, which acts as a signpost, directing your baby towards her feed. These tiny bumps around the areolas produce an oily substance that cleanses, lubricates and protects the nipples from infection during breastfeeding. It smells like amniotic fluid, so your baby will instinctively move towards this familiar smell soon after birth.
By the time your baby is born, the glandular tissue in breasts may have doubled in size. The timing of this change varies from woman to women. It can happen in mid-or late-pregnancy, or even after you’ve given birth. There’s no link between the amount of breast growth and your ability to produce milk once your baby has arrived. When your milk comes in after your baby is born, your breasts will feel noticeably heavier and fuller.
How do my breasts make milk?
Mammary glands in your breasts produce breastmilk. Inside each mammary gland, different parts play a role in making breastmilk:
- Alveoli: this is where breastmilk is produced. These are clusters of small sacs in your breast are surrounded by tiny muscles that squeeze them to push milk out into the ductules.
- Ductules: small channels that carry milk from the alveoli to the main milk ducts.
- Milk ducts: the network of canals that carries milk from the alveoli and ductules straight to your baby. These ducts increase in size and number during each pregnancy. The average is nine or so in each breast by the time you start breastfeeding.
After your baby is born, and you have delivered the placenta, the hormones oestrogen and progesterone levels in your body start to drop, while the hormone prolactin is released from the pituitary gland in your brain. Prolactin signals your body to make milk to nourish your new baby.
What happens when my baby starts to feed?
For your baby to get your milk, it must be released from the alveoli, which is called letdown. Here’s how it happens:
- As your baby suckles, the sensation in your nipple causes another part of your pituitary gland to release oxytocin into your bloodstream.
- When oxytocin reaches your breast, it causes the tiny muscles around the milk-filled alveoli to contract and squeeze, and release milk.
- Your milk moves along to the ducts just below the areola.
- When your baby feeds, they press the milk from the ducts into the mouth.
You may find that your milk drips or even sprays as it comes down. If you have painful, engorged breasts during the first few days, feeding your baby often will help. This moves the milk through your breasts, which will help to avoid the milk staying in one of the ducts too long and causing infection. If your baby struggles to feed or is unwell, you may want to express your breastmilk to avoid your breast becoming engorged and also to supply your baby with your milk.
You may feel some contractions in your tummy during the first few days as your baby suckles (afterpains). These feel like mild labour contractions. It’s oxytocin getting to work again, shrinking your uterus (womb) back to its pre-pregnancy size.