The letdown reflex triggers the release of milk by a hormone called oxytocin which is vital to milk production. Oxytocin is the love hormone associated with feelings of calm, connection, and contentment. Oxytocin also stimulates the milk-making hormone prolactin.
How does it work? – Triggering a letdown is essential to get the milk flowing, without it only 0.1 to 10ml of milk located in the ducts near the nipple will be released.
When feeding or expressing nerves in the nipple sends a message to the brain to release oxytocin. Oxytocin releases into the bloodstream to the breast, causing the small muscle cells which surround the milk-producing cells in the breast to squeeze and contract, which causes milk to be pushed through the milk ducts and then be ejected from the nipple.
Some mums feel sensations like tingling, pressure, or pins and needles during a letdown. Other mums feel nothing, and both responses are normal. If you are someone who does feel the letdown, the sensations may fade over time. You may have several letdowns during a feed or expressing session, however, you are unlikely to feel subsequent letdowns after the first one.
The letdown may also bring feelings of calm, sleepiness & increased thirst for the parent.
For the first few days postpartum when feeding or expressing you may experience cramps, this is caused by oxytocin contracting your uterus back to its pre-pregnancy size. This can become more intense with each pregnancy.
Oxytocin is a shy hormone, and if you feel stressed or anxious about expressing the oxytocin release can be inhibited temporarily. Relaxation is key to helping release oxytocin and trigger a letdown.
How can we increase oxytocin?
• Create your oxytocin-filled environment. This is very individual, but make sure you feel safe and comfortable in your surroundings.
• Prepare your breasts beforehand, try gentle breast massage or a warm compress.
• Touching or skin-to-skin time with your baby if you are together, the smell of your baby or a picture of them can help.
• Mindfulness tools such as breathing techniques, positive affirmations, or listening to guided relaxations*.
• Try watching your favourite TV show.
• Cover the pumpsets! Watching it closely can inhibit oxytocin as you may feel anxious or stressed. Try covering your collection kit with a sock.
*A study has shown that parents who listened to relaxation music while expressing produced 63% more milk after one week versus the control group. The mind is so powerful!
Experiment and see what works best for you.
Over time the letdown reflex becomes conditioned it may even be triggered by the sound or sight of your breast pump, or another baby crying!
Watch our certified breastfeeding specialist Ilayda explaining letdown on YouTube.