Breastmilk production is a biologic function of every reproductively mature human female.
Human lactation is a physioligic response to birth, but the process of producing breastmilk actually begins before your baby is even born!
Every human is born with mammary (breast) tissue. When girls enter puberty, fat deposits surround this tissue, creating breasts. Breasts can be all shapes and sizes - and all pf these variations are equally capable of producing milk when the time comes.
A CLOSER LOOK AT YOUR ANATOMY
In this oversimplified diagram of the breast, you can see that the foundational chest wall muscles lie under the breast tissues. These muscles support the breast, but more importantly, they are important for your upper body movement and allow you to pick your baby up and hold him or her close to you.
Atop of the chest wall, you see fat that creates the fullness and shape of the breast. It is common for breasts to be slightly asymmetrical in shape and/or size even in non-breastfeeding women.
The mammary glands can be found and sometimes felt within this adipose tissue. This is easier during late pregnancy and while breastfeeding. The mammary glands are where breastmilk is produced. They are surrounded by capillaries (very small blood vessels) carrying nutrients that are pulled into your milk as it is produced. The mammary glands are also surrounded by a smooth muscle that contracts during breastfeeding or pumping and pushes the milk out of the gland and into the milk duct, which carries the milk to your nipple.
The nipple is external, on the outside of your body, and is where milk is released. The areola is the pinkish brownish (depending on your skin tone) circular area around your nipple. You may notice this area enlargen or darken during pregnancy or after birth - this allows your baby to locate it easier. The areola also houses glands that lubricate your breast to protect your skin and provide additional comfort for you and your baby during breastfeeding.
YOUR BODY'S PREPARATIONS DURING PREGNANCY
Your wise body knows how to prepare for birth and postpartum all on it's own. Early in pregnancy, your breasts respond to hormonal changes. This often results in some soreness and enlargement of the breast tissue.
If you are breastfeeding during pregnancy, you milk may dry up around 20 weeks, and your body will begin to produce colostrum instead of mature milk. This colostrum is loaded with immune support for your newborn, and provides all of the nutritional qualities your baby will need after birth. Colostrum is very easy for newborn bodies to digest, allowing them to reap the benefits of it fully.
Later in pregnancy, your body may begin to leak this colostrum when your nipples are stimulated.
BEGINNING TO BREASTFEED
Shortly after your baby's birth, their placenta will release and be born. This event, called the third stage of labor in the medical world, or the "afterbirth", is an important milestone in initiating your breastfeeding journey. When the placenta is born, your body begins to release a milk-producing hormone called prolactin.
Initiating your baby's first latch within the first hour, or Golden Hour, after birth gives them colostrum to nourish and protect them - AND supports your body's milk production response. When your baby stays close to your chest or latches onto your breast, your prolactin levels increase, stimulating more milk production. It also increases your oxytocin levels, which support your let-down or milk-ejection reflex. Both are key breastfeeding hormones. This Golden Hour is also a time where you can expect your baby to be more alert, which can improve the success of your first latch!
Your baby's first latch may come naturally, or may require a few tries to get right. Your baby's body should be turned toward yours belly-to-belly, regardless of which position hold you choose to use. Your baby's lips should be flared on the top and bottom, covering part or all of your areola. Their nose should be able to breathe freely, while their chin pressed is pressed to your breast. To confirm milk transfer, watch and listen for a suck and swallow.
It is normal for babies to take suckle breaks, fall asleep at the breast, and nurse frequently. So long as breastfeeding is free of pain, your newborn has the energy to nurse, seems satisfied after feedings, and has a healthy diaper output - you're off to a good start. Try not to feel discouraged if it takes some practice, and know that there are people who can help.
MAINTAINING A BREASTFEEDING RELATIONSHIP
Breastfeeding has countless lifelong benefits for you and your baby. Breastmilk never looses it's value. Breastmilk provides ever-changing nutrients, hormones, and protection for your baby, regardless of their age. For you, breastfeeding helps decrease the risk of breast and uterine cancer, decreases the risk of postpartum hemorrhage after birth, and allows a unique bonding experience for you and your baby.
It's important to know that even the most satisfying breastfeeding relationships can have bumps in the road. One mother's words about breastfeeding have stuck with me for years: "Breastfeeding is the best, and the hardest thing I have ever done."
As your baby grows, you can expect your babies nursing habits to change with all other aspects of your life. Commonly, developmental leaps and growth spurts cause an increase in nursing sessions. When your baby begins teething, you may notice excess drooling, biting and perhaps fussiness at the breast. Babies who have a stuffy nose or a cold may need extra breaks during nursing in order to breathe comfortably. As babies approach their half-birthdays, they may become more easily distracted at the breast - so finding a quiet atmosphere or allowing additional time for nursing may feel appropriate.
Likewise, many mothers may need or want to pump breastmilk and bottle feed their babies part or full time. This approach comes with obstacles of it's own, like regularly cleaning pump and bottle parts, or establishing adequate pump breaks and spaces. Mother's who are caring for their hospitalized babies, or who are bereaved also have unique circumstances that can require additional support or accomodation.
Every breastfeeding journey is unique, and you get to decide what works best for you and your family every step of the way. While some mothers breastfeed for days, others may breastfeed for years. Some mothers exclusively breastfeed, and others may pump or combination feed with breast and formula. Some mothers begin solids at 6 months, while others may wait until their babies are closer to their babies' first birthdays.
The most important matter is that you and your child feel safe, supported, and secure in your choices.
Lynnea is a nurse turned birthkeeper, with a special passion for supporting postpartum mothers and women who are seeking healing after a difficult birth experience.
Lynnea is a mother of 2 children, who gifted her four consecutive years of breastfeeding experience, including exclusively breastfeeding, pumping, formula supplementation, nursing with oral ties, wet nursing and breastmilk donation.
Book a support session! Lynnea offers birth story integration, birth & postpartum planning, and ongoing postpartum support packages. Learn more & Book your session here.