The Science of Breastfeeding: 5 Things You Need to Know to Help Your Breast Milk Flow

Firstly we need to visualise the inside of a lactating breast. I think the best way is to imagine the inside is like a bunch of grapes...

Let's visualise the inside of a lactating breast:

  • Each grape is called an alveoli and within it are many milk-making cells (lactocytes).
  • Each grape (alveoli) is connected to a branch (known as ducts).
  • These individual branches grow together and reach out toward the nipple.
  • The nipple has several openings to allow the milk to flow out.

There is a really special hormone called oxytocin, which is responsible for causing the milk to let-down (flow).

Oxytocin causes muscle cells to contract. When you are in labour contractions are created because of the oxytocin hormone telling the muscle cells to contract. Oxytocin does the same thing to the milk-making cells in the breast. Oxytocin hormone is released from the brain when your baby shows interest in breastfeeding and sucks very quickly on the breast in the first minute or so.

The release of this hormone tells the tiny muscle cells around the milk-making cells to contract. This squeezes the milk out from the cells into the ducts (the branches). The milk is then forced to flow down the ducts towards the nipple and baby can then draw out the milk and swallow it.

You will notice when the milk is flowing as baby changes his sucking pattern from quick sucking to more rhythmic sucks and swallows.

It’s a very simple system to make the milk flow. So why does it not always happen that easily for every mum and baby?

Oxytocin is a Powerful, Yet Sensitive Hormone

Oxytocin is commonly known as the love hormone. It is released in all types of circumstances; when you are laughing and feeling happy with people you love to be around, when you see someone you fancy (!), when you make love and when you go into labour with contractions.

It is of course also released when you breastfeed, but also when you look at and think about your baby.

Babies will often touch their mum softly with their hands as they look up at her with their big beautiful eyes during feeding, this is designed to give you a huge oxytocin release and help the milk flow in leaps and bounds!

But what if you are needing to express as you cannot be with your baby, or you are breastfeeding but your nipples feel incredibly sore, or you are having a period of high stress in your life at that time, could this affect your oxytocin and the let down?

Well, yes it can for some mums. Fear and stress hormones can impact on how well oxytocin is released and thus can impact on how well your milk lets-down and flows.

Can anything be done to help with milk flow? Thankfully yes! Let’s have a look at our 5 tips to help milk flow:

Take 5 Deep Breaths with Your Eyes Closed

This may seem silly, but relaxing your body before you breastfeed or express is really important for some mums to help the hormones do their job. If you are feeling anxious around breastfeeding this is a good thing to do before each feed.

Some mums even find that 5 -10 minutes of meditation before each feed/expression really helps their milk flow. There has been some interesting research that looked at mums with preterm babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). It showed that expressing whilst listening to guided meditation or relaxing music resulted in much more milk being expressed.

Gently Massage, Stroke and Compress Your Breasts

By gently massaging and compressing around the breast before and even during feeding or expressing can greatly improve your milk output.

Stimulating Your Brain to Increase Milk Flow

If you are needing to express and you are away from your baby these 3 things can make a big difference to helping the milk flow: Looking at pictures of your baby, watching video of your baby and smelling the clothing or wraps your baby has worn

By doing this it makes your brain think about your baby and remember the warm beautiful bonding you have when you are together, which releases the oxytocin hormone in abundance.

Lastly, Make Sure Your Environment is Right

Sometimes if mums are feeding a new baby and are very distracted by their toddler or other children at the start of the feed it can prevent the milk flowing down quickly and baby may become frustrated. Try and concentrate just on your baby when you first start to feed, allowing your body to relax and the milk to flow.

Try to keep your environment calm with not too many distractions. This really applies to mums needing to express a lot. For some mums their bodies are easily distracted by the TV being on or by reading their phone and they find it impacts on how their milk flows. Try feeding or expressing and only concentrating on your baby or a picture of your baby, you may find just this simple technique alone really helps.

We’d love to hear your tips for encouraging the oxytocin hormone. Join the conversation on our Medela Australia Facebook page.