Wondering how breastfeeding works? Here’s the science behind it.
Prolactin, the milk producing hormone
Starting right after you give birth, milk production is mainly driven by hormones. Prolactin, the milk producing hormone, is at its highest right after birth. When the placenta is released from the uterus, the hormones levels of estrogen and progesterone drop rapidly. With the increase in prolactin, breastmilk production begins.
When are prolactin levels highest?
Levels of prolactin are highest late at night through the early morning hours. This is why breastfeeding or pumping at night is important for maintaining milk supply. Many mums will also find they pump their largest volume of milk at night or the first thing in the morning.
Oxytocin, supply and demand
After the surge of prolactin levels decrease (about 10 weeks postpartum) milk production becomes a supply-and-demand system. This means you’ll have to do something that triggers your body to produce more prolactin. The science behind this is oxytocin, the love hormone. Oxytocin triggers the production of prolactin. Certain things, like nipple stimulation and skin-to-skin contact with your baby, naturally trigger an oxytocin release. This is why many mums find looking at photos of their babies while they pump will trigger a letdown. In other words, mother’s milk is made with love ❤️
Feedback inhibitor of lactation
Emptying milk from breasts is important for breastmilk production. This is why we encourage you continue pumping until you feel empty, especially if you’re exclusively expressing. When your breasts are full, your body knows to stop producing milk. This is because your breastmilk contains a whey protein which acts as a feedback inhibitor of lactation (FIL). According to Kellymom, “milk production slows when milk accumulates in the breast (and more FIL is present), and speeds up when the breast is emptier (and less FIL is present).”
So basically, your breastmilk can tell your body when your breasts are full. Cool!
How do I increase my milk supply?
How breastfeeding works is based on oxytocin and prolactin levels, feeding into a supply-and-demand cycle. Here are some ways you can boost oxytocin naturally, and up the ‘demand’ for your body to produce more milk:
Skin to skin contact with your baby
The World Health Organization recommends skin-to-skin contact, or early initiation of breastfeeding, within the first hour of baby’s life. You’ll get a surge of oxytocin to help kickstart milk production during this time. The benefits of skin-to-skin contact don’t stop here – it’ll continue to promote milk production throughout your breastfeeding journey.
Breastfeeding for comfort
Babies will want to breastfeed for more than just hunger. It’s natural for a breastfed baby to want to breastfeed when scared, sick, tired, or even bored. This is nature’s way of keeping the oxytocin flowing. When baby falls asleep at the breast, it does great things for your milk supply.
Continue pumping after milkflow stops
You can use your breast pump to increase milk supply. Breastmilk production is up to supply and demand, so fully emptying your breasts each time you pump is important for milk production. When you pump, pay attention to how your breasts feel: they should be soft after pumping. Make sure you pump until your milkflow stops, and for a couple minutes beyond this point (the nipple stimulation also helps tell your body to make more milk). Don’t be surprised if you get another letdown after your milkflow stops, too – it’s common to experience multiple letdowns during one pumping session.
Take a look at this blog post for a details on several breast pumping methods for boosting milk supply.